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The death of a basketball player, Leonard Kevin "Len" Bias, due to overdose of cocaine, led the Congress to enact tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes in 1986.
It is not new to us anymore that the rate of crime and of conviction has been rising since the past few decades. Overcrowding of jails and prisons has surprisingly come up as a complex administrative issue in the United States. On this background, there have been many attempts to reform some systemic processes, to ensure fairer justice.

When a crime is committed, suspects are arrested, and are tried in the respective courts. The process of giving a verdict, then, is left as the most important step, which would either release the suspect, or declare him/her a convict, and issue a punishment. This crucial 'judgment' involves great effort on the part of the judges, who after keen fact finding, and after considering the whole scenario, declare their decisions. But, there are instances when they are not allowed to use their discretionary authority.

What is Mandatory Sentencing

According to the Bureau of Justice, sentencing is defined as,

Final act of a judge-ruled process, and also the symbolic principal act connected to his function. The sentence generally involves a decree of imprisonment, a fine and/or other punishments against a defendant convicted of a crime.

Definition

Mandatory sentencing refers to a court decision, where the discretion of the judiciary is limited by law.

Upon conviction for some crimes, the guilty have to be penalized with a minimum number of years in prison. A judicial officer has to impose the (mandatory) sentence, despite the circumstances in which the offense was conducted. It cannot be changed to a lower or higher sentence.

Explanation

Consider, for example, there is a young girl who is convicted for indulging in the sale of some illegal drug. The judge, after hearing the entire case, understands that she was deceitfully caught up in the crime. A mandatory sentence, in this case, would not allow the judge to reduce the severity of the sentence, despite knowing the circumstances in which the girl was fraudulently trapped.

In the United States, the judges of federal courts are not permitted to be informed about the mandatory minimum penalties, to be applied in case of the accused being convicted. They are only to decide whether the person is guilty or innocent.

Mandatory sentences for drug crimes have been detailed with reference to the quantities of drugs carried by the accused. The law is also said to consider the general conduct of the accused, and not just the possession of drugs as evidence.

It relates to the principle of 'Common Law' (also case law, or precedent), where decisions and verdicts given by judges and tribunals earlier, act as a guideline, to decide over future cases.

History of Mandatory Sentencing

The Boggs Act of 1951 is one of the first steps taken in the realm of mandatory sentencing. Through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was established. This Commission is responsible for providing uniform guidelines for mandatory sentencing decisions. Later, strict mandatory penalties were established with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The United States Congress enacted mandatory sentences for various drug crimes; also for firearms offenses. This legislation and imposing of mandatory sentences was seen to be a deterrent, which would dissuade criminals from engaging in any criminal acts. That remains to be a never-accomplished purpose.

Since 2013, following an announcement in that regard by the Attorney General, the Justice Department is known to have been pursuing a different policy. The mandatory minimum sentences are now to be restricted to cases including certain drugs only.

Pros and Cons of Mandatory Sentencing Laws

On the positive side, these laws have been regarded as a prominent tool in reducing the crime rate, at the beginning of their introduction. The aim of mandatory sentences acting as a deterrent, may have been partly achieved, according to some advocates of mandatory sentencing.

On the contrary, these sentences have been observed to create a racial rift among society. Many who oppose this system of justice, claim that there are several people who have been convicted wrongly, as they were imposed with unjust sentences.

If the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. is to believed, imprisonment is said to have little effect on drug abuse. As per their statistics, 60 - 80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison.


The most controversial amongst all sentencing laws, is the Three-strikes Law or Habitual Offender Laws enacted by several states in the United States. Harsher sentences are imposed on criminals committing a third crime, who are already convicted for two offenses earlier. This is designed to resist the tendency of recidivism in criminal offenders.