Research by a Saint Mary's faculty member shows that judges find mandatory minimum sentences restrictive, and that the guidelines fail to deter criminals from committing crime.
After surveying nearly 200 Pennsylvania judges, Business Administration Professor Rebecca Carroll found that the vast majority believe mandatory minimum sentencing standards are restrictive and can prevent justice.
"Mandatory minimum sentencing fails to factor in variables that could impact a case, such as mental health, race and socio-economic status," Carroll said during a presentation at a faculty scholarship forum in March.
Of the 194 judges who answered the question, "Do you feel mandatory minimum sentencing helps to deter people from committing crimes?" 163 answered no. Of those who responded yes, many cited only DUI sentencing as positively impacted by the laws.
"These are outlined as 'mandatory guidelines," Carroll said. "Phrasing like that is any rhetorician's dream."
Carroll, who became interested in mandatory sentencing during a conversation with a judge, found that 162 of 197 judges surveyed believe that the state should not enact mandatory minimum sentencing at all, and 90 percent said they believe their job is impeded by the rules.
"One of the judges that wrote back in favor of MMSs actually wrote, 'I like MMSs because I don't have to think,' " Carroll said. "I thought he was joking."
Mandatory minimum sentencing has led to a sharp increase in the number of people now in jail. In 1980, there were 338,029 prisoners in the United States. By 1990, the number was up to 1,148,702, and the total reached 1,965,667 by 2000. Politicians are in a tough position when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing because going against the standard minimums may make them seem soft on crime.
"In my research I've found that this country tends to move like a pendulum when it comes to how we want to punish criminals," Carroll said. "And right now we're at the extreme point of, 'You broke the law. I want to see you pay.' "
But, Carroll said, circumstances arise when judges believe the mandatory minimum sentences prevent them from factoring in human aspects when dealing with defendants.
"One judge told me a story about a single mother of two. She went to an afternoon wine and cheese tasting, had a couple of glasses of wine, and on the drive home she wrecked her car," Carroll said. "One of her children died in the crash so instead of allowing her to be on parole and work community service, the judge was required to send her to jail for three years, which meant her other child had to go into foster care. The loss of a child seems like enough pain for that woman to suffer through without hurting her remaining child even more."
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