An interesting article in The New York Times today discusses how mandatory minimum sentencing has become a tool for prosecutors to use in coercing defendants to accept guilty pleas instead of exercising their right to a trial by jury.
Due to the harsh mandatory minimums that can now be imposed in several states, as well as in federal court, prosecutors use the threat of mandatory decades in prison in order to get defendants to accept pleas that will entail less prison time.
Guilt or innocence notwithstanding, mandatory minimums force people to weigh their right to a jury trial against the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence.
Plea bargains are a regular part of the criminal justice process. Most cases are resolved by way of plea bargains. Each side gives a little and each side gets a little. According to the Times article, "fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial."
Anyone facing the possibility of a mandatory minimum sentence may seriously consider a plea bargain, regardless of whether or not that person is guilty or innocent. Trafficking, for example, carries mandatory prison in Florida. No matter the substance, if the weight meets the statutory criteria, the legislature requires mandatory prison time be served for trafficking offenses unless that mandatory minimum is waived by the State Attorney.
So in trafficking cases, it's the prosecutor that has all the power. Only he or she can waive a mandatory minimum.
But what is so wrong about mandatory sentencing is that the judiciary is stripped of all discretion. It used to be that if you exercised your right to a jury trial and were found guilty, a judge would impose a sentence based on a wide range of factors. A judge may consider the severity of the crime, whether you have a criminal history, how old you are, your level of education, or whether you are employed. The judge may listen to statements from friends, employers, teachers, and family members. Based upon all of those things, the judge would likely impose a fair sentence. It may include prison time, it may not. But it was up to the judge.
With mandatory minimum sentencing, none of things matter. If you are found guilty of a crime that carries a mandatory sentence, you will go to prison for the mandatory term. It doesn't matter whether you are a first-time offender or a multiple felon. Whether you are educated and employed or a high school dropout. None of those factors mean a thing.
That is why the prosecutors in our state and federal courts are having such great success when it comes to getting people to plead guilty. It's because they hold the power. As long as mandatory minimum sentencing exists, they will continue to hold the power.