Mandatory Sentences, Uniformity, and Consistency

Criminal penalties and sanctions vary between state jurisdictions. For example, some states allow the death penalty. Others' most severe punishment is a life sentence. Similarly, mandatory minimum sentencing laws vary between the states. Mandatory minimum penalties are uniform at the federal level.

Some state and federal criminal laws carry mandatory sentences. These require judges to impose identical sentences on anyone convicted of an offense.

Most crimes do not carry mandatory sentences. If sentencing isn't mandatory, judges may have wide discretion in sentencing. This allows them to "fit the punishment to the offender" rather than "fit the punishment to the crime." It also allows them to consider mitigating and aggravating factors in sentencing.

This article discusses criminal punishment and sentencing in the criminal justice system. It then covers mandatory minimum sentences and how sentencing has evolved over time. It also discusses the controversy over mandatory minimum sentences.

Approaches to Punishment and Sentencing

Competing theories about criminal justice fuel the different approaches to sentencing and punishment. Some approaches focus on a punishment's severity. Others focus on the punishment's objective. Theories of criminal punishment include the following:

  • Retribution: Some believe that the primary purpose of criminal punishment is retribution. Retribution is perhaps the oldest theory of criminal punishment. It reflects a society's desire for vengeance against a criminal.
  • Segregation: This philosophy doesn't address financial or racial disparity or division. Instead, it aims to separate criminals from society through strict criminal sentencing. It reflects a policy of public safety by removing criminals from society.
  • Rehabilitation: Others believe that the primary purpose of punishment is to rehabilitate criminals. For example, they believe that the process should help criminals mend their ways.
  • Deterrence: Some argue that criminal outcomes should have a deterrent effect. The hope is that fear of punishment may deter someone from committing a crime.
  • Closure for Victims' Families: Crime victims often argue that only strict sentences bring them justice. Some may feel vindicated after a court sentences someone to death.

Mandatory Sentences Explained

The concept of mandatory sentences is relatively straightforward. Congress and state legislatures have passed federal and state laws. Some of these laws criminalize certain behaviors, like theft, arson, and murder. Breaking the law carries penalties, including potential jail time. Some criminal penalties may include a minimum amount of jail time.

For example, Ohio state law establishes minimum mandatory sentences for some crimes. These include the following:

  • A person convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer (seven years)
  • A person convicted of a misdemeanor assault on a pregnant woman (30 days in jail)
  • A person convicted of human trafficking (10 to 15 years)

A judge cannot use discretionary sentencing in these circumstances. Instead, they must sentence the convicted person to at least the minimum prison time.

Every state imposes mandatory minimum sentences. The crimes for which they impose these sentences vary from state to state. Your state's sentencing guidelines determine the potential jail time.

In addition to mandatory minimum sentences, other factors may influence the minimum term. These are known as “sentencing enhancements." Suppose a violent offender has prior violent crime convictions. The judge may use the sentencing guidelines to enhance the minimum prison sentence.

Ohio considers a convicted person's risk of recidivism when determining a sentence. For example, a judge may consider whether the person committed a crime while out on bail. The judge has the discretion to enhance the person's sentence accordingly.

History of Mandatory Minimums

The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to determine what actions constitute criminal behavior. It also allows Congress to set the penalties for such behavior, including sentencing.

Mandatory minimum sentences in the United States date back to at least 1790. For example, there was no judicial discretion when a jury convicted a person of treason or murder in 1790. In such a case, the judge had to sentence the person to death. The 1790 Crimes Act identified seven criminal offenses punishable by death.

Congress passed the Crimes Act in response to trends disfavoring the death penalty. Before the Crimes Act, a conviction related to a serious crime often resulted in death. The Crimes Act reduced the crimes for which the death penalty applied. It also introduced maximum jail sentences for crimes such as theft and manslaughter. Debates over the Crime Act involved proportionality between criminal acts and their punishments. Overall, the Crimes Act reduced the use of the death penalty. It also introduced far more judiciary discretion in sentencing.

In 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act. Among other things, the Act criminalized trying to impede a federal officer's duties. It carried a mandatory minimum penalty of six months of imprisonment.

Congress also passed mandatory sentences regarding the slave trade in 1807. The Constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the enslavement of African Americans until 1808. Congress passed an Act in 1807 that served as a workaround for the prohibition. The Act instituted a five-year prison term on anyone who brought slaves to the United States. It also penalized those who worked on a ship transporting slaves.

Timeline of Mandatory Minimum Legislation

The history of mandatory minimum sentences in the United States is extensive. The following provides a brief look at notable changes throughout history:

  • Slave-related trafficking: In 1818, Congress passed laws criminalizing illegal slave trafficking. It imposed a three-year mandatory sentence for anyone engaged in the slave trade.
  • 1825 Crime Act: This Act amended the 1790 Crime Act, reducing the crimes punishable by death to three.
  • Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970: This Act abolished most mandatory sentences for drug crimes. This led to indeterminate sentencing, unconstrained by a guideline range or mandatory sentences.
  • Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: This provided the sentencing system for federal drug crimes. It established mandatory minimum sentences for various drug crimes. The sentence depended on the type and quantity of drugs involved. For example, it carried different sentences for different types of cocaine. The Act's criminal penalties aimed to deter drug offenses and drug trafficking.
  • Fair Sentencing Act (2010): Congress repealed mandatory sentences for crack cocaine convictions. The Sentencing Commission noted several sentencing disparities. These disparities sparked public outcry. President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010.
  • First Step Act (2018): In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law. It included sentencing reforms and made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. In doing so, it enhanced judicial discretion and reduced mandatory minimum sentences. It also allowed for more rehabilitation programs and education in prisons. The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicates the program has achieved successful results. Prisoners released after participation in the program have a 12% recidivism rate. Prisoners released without participating in the program have a 45% recidivism rate. The First Step Act also attempts to reduce rising prison populations. To do so, it employs more home arrests and prerelease custody.

For more historical information, consider reading the United States Sentencing Commission's report.

Sentencing Guidelines

In 1984, Congress ratified the Sentencing Guidelines. The U.S. Sentencing Commission provided guidance to Congress.

Congress created sentencing guidelines, in part, to address three issues with sentencing decisions. The issues are as follows:

  • Consistency: The guidelines intend to treat similar crimes alike. For example, two people convicted of the same crime should receive the same sentence.
  • Proportionality: The guidelines intend to punish people in proportion to their criminal acts.
  • Eliminate Discrimination: The guidelines intend to eliminate the effect gender or race may have on criminal sentencing.

The Sentencing Guidelines took away substantial judicial discretion for certain crimes. Specifically, the federal sentencing guidelines added mandatory minimums for gun and drug crimes.

In 2008, the DOJ researched whether the guidelines effectively met these goals. The study examined all states' sentencing guidelines. The study focused on three states' guidelines (Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia). The DOJ concluded the states' guidelines accomplished “consistency."

Regarding “proportionality," the DOJ noted it is difficult to measure. This is due to how states classify different crimes. Specifically, the states varied in determining the seriousness of certain crimes. States also differed in how they considered one's criminal history in sentencing.

The DOJ found evidence that the guidelines affected discriminatory factors and sentencing disparities. The DOJ found that they led to Black males in some states spending additional time in jail for crimes. The DOJ concluded that convicted females faced more lenient sentences. The sex differences were both in terms of whether they went to prison and their sentence length.

Controversies Surrounding Mandatory Sentencing

Mandatory sentences are controversial. Many arguments relate to the goals of criminal punishment and sentencing described earlier. This section describes the arguments of proponents and opponents of the sentencing scheme.


Opponents of mandatory sentencing argue that strict mandatory sentences don't deter criminals. They say an increased chance of conviction leads to more deterrence than mandatory sentences.

Opponents also argue that mandatory sentencing increases prison populations beyond their capacities. From 1980 to 2005, the prison population increased by 1.1 million people. This has a wide-ranging economic effect. Michigan, for example, spent more on its prison system than higher education in 2008.

Others argue that mandatory sentencing doesn't eliminate racial discrimination. They argue that mandatory sentencing may actually introduce unfairness into sentencing.

The critics of mandatory sentencing have suggested many reforms or alternatives. Some say felons should receive a shorter jail sentence with probation or rehabilitation. Others suggest a return to allowing judges more discretion in their sentencing decisions.


Proponents of mandatory sentences cite deterrence as a benefit. They argue mandatory life sentences may scare off potential criminals from committing crimes. Some states have ratified Three Strikes Laws. These laws severely punish repeat felony offenders. A person convicted of three serious felonies may receive a life sentence.

Supporters further argue that the guidelines reduce the bias judges may have in sentencing.

Mandatory sentences also protect society from threats, so argue its supporters. By incarcerating criminals, they cannot continue committing crimes in public.

Learn More About Mandatory Sentences, Uniformity, and Consistency From an Attorney

Mandatory sentencing guidelines typically allow potential adjustments and departures. An experienced criminal defense attorney can find and secure these for you. If the government charges you with a crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney. They can provide you with legal advice regarding the following:

  • Your state's sentencing practices
  • Information about guilty pleas and your state's plea bargaining process
  • The factors sentencing judges consider in their sentencing process
  • The effect prior convictions may have on criminal sentencing outcomes and longer sentences
  • Your state's attorney general's sentencing policy

A criminal defense attorney can provide helpful defense strategies in your case. Do not delay in contacting one if you face criminal charges.

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