Is Mandatory Sentencing a Good Idea?
By Steve Gillman
Think mandatory sentencing is a good idea? You may change
your mind after you read this excerpt from the ebook "99
Lie # 19
Mandatory Sentencing Is a Good Idea
The Reason for the Lie
This is a lie lawmakers help perpetuate, because the public
wants to believe in easy solutions to things like crime, and
the legislators can look "tough on crime" by passing
these laws. In addition, people are rightfully offended when
a judge occasionally gives dangerous criminals light sentences.
It is easy to believe that the solution is to take a way the
judge's discretionary power and require a minimum sentence.
Mandatory sentencing causes more problems than it solves.
It is true that without it, judges will abuse their power at
times and be too easy on criminals. It is also true that with
it, judges have no power to discriminate between cases when they
This is easy to understand when you look at specific laws.
For example, under statutory rape laws, a boy of eighteen who
sleeps with his 16-year-old girlfriend after they date for years,
is committing the same crime as a 56-year-old teacher having
sex with a student who is sixteen. Under mandatory sentencing,
they would both get the same minimum sentence. In the latter
case, an older man in a position of authority is taking advantage
of a young girl, while in the former two young people are being
young people. Even if it is too soon and wrong for him to have
sex with her, do we really think that these crimes are equivalent,
and should be punished the same?
One could argue that most mandatory sentencing is about mandatory
minimums, so a judge can still give different sentences in different
cases. This sounds good in theory, but in practice the reason
for the minimums are to placate a public tired of easy sentences,
so they are usually sufficiently harsh that they become the standard
sentence. Imagine the the 56-year-old teacher above. The public
would want him to go to prison for ten years minimum, so any
law providing for that would mean that in the other case the
boyfriend would have to suffer the same sentence.
A dramatic case of the failure of mandatory sentencing is
the Michigan law (now repealed) that set life without parole
as the mandatory sentence for possession of a certain amount
of cocaine. Imagine that your daughter was handed a package by
a friend and told "Hang onto that for me for a few minutes."
She is then arrested for possession of cocaine, and admits that
she suspected it was drugs. She would have no opportunity to
ever be free again. Is this really the kind of "justice"
we want? A life taken for a mistake in judgment by an eighteen-year-old?
In addition, the law encouraged criminals to kill police.
A criminal couldn't get one more day in prison for murder than
they would for the drugs, so why not shoot his way out of an
attempted arrest? We should have learned from the past, when
routine or mandatory life sentences for kidnapping encouraged
the kidnappers to kill the only witnesses - the victims. There
needs to be a proper scale of punishments, because some crimes
are worse than others. Mandatory sentencing gets in the way of
Why It Matters
Simplistic solutions like mandatory sentencing often result
in less justice and more problems. They also divert attention
from real problems, like getting rid of judges who can't seem
to distinguish between criminals who need to be locked away for
a long time and those cases that are less serious. Judges need
to be able to exercise judgment. If they do so poorly, they need
to be replaced - with better judges, not with laws that try to
think for them.
There is a risk we take in allowing men to judge. Some criminals
will be set free too soon. However, we take a bigger risk when
we allow politicians to set sentences before cases are ever heard.
First, there is the risk that productive young people will be
in prison for many years or even life, for correctable behavior
(mistakes), instead of working and contributing to society. Second,
there is the risk that we will lose respect for the concept of
justice when people are sentenced only according to the legal
definition of their crimes, rather than by the reality of what
they have done. Mandatory sentencing is simply a bad idea.
From the ebook "99 Lies," which comes with, "You
Aren't Supposed To Know - A Book Of Secrets." To see what
else comes with the package, visit