Oklahoma and federal mandatory minimum sentences have returned to headlines in recent weeks.
An Oklahoma bill banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants failed in the state senate earlier this year. Nationally, former Vice President Biden has been criticized for his previous support of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Also, new Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch recently surprised many by siding with four more liberal justices to strike down a similar Texas statute.
What are they exactly?
State and federal legislators have passed laws requiring judges to impose pre-determined sentences for specified crimes. Voters and elected officials sometimes incite one another to support ever-harsher punishments for crimes that currently inflame public sentiment.
What are the criticisms about?
Since 1986, when new drug laws heavily relied on the practice to fight an alleged crack epidemic, andatory sentencing has been criticized on multiplying grounds and with deepening passion as lessons from the now 35-year experiment have emerged.
The most prominent criticisms claim that these laws have distorted the country’s priorities, values and sense of justice in various ways.
Mandatory sentencing is widely seen as contributing to an era of mass incarceration in the U.S., where 2.3 million people are currently behind bars and more than 6 million can no longer vote due to felony convictions. In Oklahoma, more than 40,000 are in jail or prison and over 58,000 can’t vote.
Although mandatory minimums have the advantage of appearing race-neutral, their actual affect is commonly said to be racially discriminatory. This might happen in many ways, such as reserving harsher minimums for crimes disproportionately committed or prosecuted among blacks, or disparities in accepting plea bargains.
Mandatory minimums are often said to have shifted the balance of power from the judiciary to more volatile legislative bodies, denying judges the discretion to better fit sentences to the es of crimes. Some have also suggested prosecutors may use the threat of harsh mandatory sentences to secure confessions and convictions that, fairly or unfairly, follow suspects forever.
Often, juries can’t be told mandatory sentences will be imposed if defendants are found guilty, thus preventing them from considering whether these sentences are justified by the particulars. This can lead to seemingly irrational and unjust outcomes that can erode citizen confidence in the judicial system in the long term.