January 09, 2023

Opinion: Mandatory Minimum Sentence

Your cell phone weighs approximately 1.4 pounds. Doesn’t really like seem like much, does it? We carry things like this all the time. Can you imagine serving a life sentence in prison for this? Neither could Ronald Harmelin after a Michigan judge handed down his sentence for possession of cocaine. And although Ronald had never committed any other felony-level crime, that possession charge carried with it a mandatory sentence. Being a law student and paralegal, I have read case after case and have seen otherwise innocent people serve borderline cruel and unusual punishments like this time and time again. So, today I am going to tell you where mandatory minimum sentences originated and how they led to the downright failure of America’s criminal justice system. I am also going to describe how prosecutors use mandatory minimum sentence schemes to their advantage when plea bargaining with criminal defendants, and I will emphasize our Constitutional right to a jury trial and how crucial this is to us as U.S. citizens.

Most mandatory minimum sentences were drafted into our legal system in the eighties after the drug overdose deaths of two high-profile athletes. These deaths caused an uproar amongst sports fans and spurred a rapid increase in media coverage about drugs. Kenneth J. Meier noted in his 1994 book: The Politics of Sin, that NBC News ran 400 reports on crack-cocaine in the months that followed deaths, which pressured the Reagan Administration to respond to this newly heightened public fear of drug use. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 was quickly pushed through Congress bereft any of the procedure of which a typical proposed bill undergoes, and this law imposed harsh sentences on narcotics dealers and skyrocketed the nation’s imprisonment rate. Because these pieces of legislation were so hastily passed into law and continued to receive support from George Bush, President Reagan’s successor, mandatory minimum sentences of confinement for certain low-level drug crimes became a requirement by which courts must abide. Moreover, those who challenged their mandatory minimum sentences gained no such support from the United States Supreme Court. In fact, since 1980, the Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional, a life sentence for stealing approximately $230.00 worth of items. It has also upheld a 40-year sentence for possessing marijuana and a sentence of fifty years to life for stealing videotapes that retailed at $150.00.

If charged with a crime, we all have a right to be tried by a jury, but because mandatory minimum sentences have become more of a threatening tool than effective law, very few felony convictions happen after a jury trial, and most end with a defendant’s guilty plea. In fact, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Foundation for Criminal Justice concluded that of the 79,704 criminal cases processed in federal courts in 2019, only 320 cases, or less than 1%, actually went to trial.

Plea bargaining between a district attorney and a defense attorney was generally criticized by the Supreme Court, but after the 1970 case of Brady v. U.S., the Court held that negotiated pleas may be permitted if “motivated by the defendant’s desire to accept the certainty or probability of a lesser penalty rather than face…a higher penalty authorized by law for the crime charged.” With the top court’s blessing, state lawmakers began to stack the deck against defendants with harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for the conviction of drug-related and many other crimes. Mandatory minimums have displaced the role of judges, who are supposed to ensure that a person’s sentence fits the crime. Prosecutors now know that dangling charges of these crimes carrying mandatory minimums over an accused’s head is an easy way to extract a guilty plea to just about anything carrying a lesser sentence.

And there’s more. Not only are prosecutors free to add or not add charges that carry mandatory minimums, there’s evidence that if an accused rejects a prosecutor’s plea offer, that prosecutor will add more serious charges by the time one gets to trial. This is being called a “trial penalty,” and this trial penalty is the price defendants pay for exercising their right to a fair trial.

Even without coercion, defendants have a strong incentive to plead guilty to a lesser charge, because at first glance, guilty pleas look like a win…and certainly, this appears to be correct. Post-trial sentences are much harsher than plea-bargained sentences. But we are quick to forget that not everyone who goes to trial is found guilty and convicted. In fact, the National Center for State Courts found that in 2017 1/3 of felony jury trials ended in acquittal or dismissal of charges, which means that if 100,000 Pennsylvanians would have gone to trial, more than 30,000 of them would have been found not guilty and gone free. Instead, by supporting mandatory minimum sentences and supporting the “tough on crime” campaigners, we are giving prosecutors the upper hand in the criminal process and are wiping all the power of both defendants and their attorneys.

The logic behind supporting mandatory minimum sentences is simple: locking someone up for an extended period of time will enhance public safety by reducing crime. The offender will be subsequently incapacitated, preventing him from re-offending. Unfortunately, the facts do not support this logic. According to Valerie Wright, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, confinement is criminogenic, or crime-producing, which means that incarceration actually makes an individual more likely to commit crime in the future. A 1999 study that assessed the relationship between prison time and recidivism revealed that longer prison sentences were associated with a three percent increase in re-offending. In fact, offenders who spent an average of 30 months in prison had a recidivism rate of 29% compared to a 26% rate among those who only spent 12 months behind bars. While most judges’ intentions are to protect the public and deter criminal behavior in their communities, in utilizing mandatory minimum sentence schemes, they are actually enhancing the probability that more crime will occur.

And while some say courts’ use of mandatory minimums and plea bargaining cut down on biased criminal sentences, the facts say otherwise. The people bearing the brunt of mandatory sentencing are not the affluent or even the middle class. A recent survey revealed that the plea bargains offered to accused persons who hired a private attorney are much better than those offered to defendants who qualify and utilize public defenders. What this says is that we incarcerate large numbers of low-income people for much longer periods of time, and these people then jump on the hamster wheel of poverty and prison terms.

So, today I described to you how mandatory minimum sentences came to be. I also explained how prosecutors use these schemes to their advantage when plea bargaining, and I told you just how mandatory sentences come to play when dealing with our Constitutional right to a trial by a jury of our peers. John Ehrett of Yale Law School explains that “Voters want politicians who are seen as ‘tough on crime’, but simultaneously express opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing schemes.” He calls this an “apparent cognitive dissonance,”; in short, we’re asking our legislators to crack down on crime but take it easy on the criminal…which is both unreasonable and impractical, so we, as voters, must implore our lawmakers to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws and call on prosecutors to stop threatening people with decades in prison for exercising their right to trial. I also believe that courts should require mandatory plea-bargaining conferences that are supervised by third-party criminal law experts not involved in that particular case. Don’t get caught up in a tragedy like Ronald Harmelin; become one of the 77% of Americans who oppose mandatory minimum sentences.

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