An Animal Law Attorney’s Perspective On The Debate Over Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Statutes (short version)

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on April 30, 2007

For a variety of reasons, media coverage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has escalated in recent months.  In the last week alone, stories or editorials have run across the country, from Cambridge, MA, to Portland, OR addressing the issue.  One of the primary arguments articulated in opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is couched in terms of preserving or restoring “judicial discretion.” The argument boils down to this:  “Enacting laws that require judges to impose a minimum sentence for a specific type of criminal conduct is bad public policy because such laws are an unreasonable limitation of the exercise of ‘judicial discretion.'” Simple enough.  

The problem is that, in order to have any real credibility, the proponent of this view must be willing to concede that the underlying driving policy concern (i.e., the preservation of judicial discretion) be consistently applied throughout our criminal justice system–you can’t have your cake and eat it too. However, it has been my experience that the people supporting the reformation of mandatory minimum sentencing rules because they limit judicial discretion are also the same people who oppose reformation of other rules the similarly hamstring the discretion of trial judges, such as the exclusionary rule (a rule that requires  trial judges to exclude evidence that is collected improperly, regardless of the investigating officer’s good faith attempt to comply with the law). So, the next time you find yourself a party to a discussion on merits of mandatory minimum sentencing rules (and should this be happening on a frequent basis, you might consider getting out more), check your logic for internal consistency before you dig in on your position.  


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