Crime & Justice
To many public officials, promotion and enactment of mandatory penalty laws are important symbols of their concern for public safety and citizens' fear of crime. In practice, mandatory minimum-penalty laws accomplish few of their stated objectives and produce unwanted consequences. Their deterrent effects range from nonexistent to short-lived. When they call for short mandatory prison terms for serious crimes, they are often irrelevant because longer sentences are generally imposed. When they mandate longer terms (five, ten, twenty years), they are often circumvented by lawyers and judges. They reduce defendants' incentives to plead guilty, reduce guilty plea rates, and lengthen case processing time. They sometimes result in imposition of penalties more severe than anyone immediately involved believes appropriate. A number of devices exist, ranging from repeal to reconfiguration, for avoiding the unwanted effects of mandatory penalties. Whether such devices can adequately reconcile public officials' needs to take symbolic actions with court officials' needs to be both just and efficient remains to be seen.
Michael Tonry, Mandatory Penalties, 16 Crime & Just. 243 (1992), available at http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/480.