Punishments for criminal convictions are partially determined by pre-written and universally applied laws and partially by the discretion of judges. In a criminal trial, the jury decides whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of the charges, and if they find the defendant guilty, the judge decides the punishment. In many cases, the judge can use his or her individual judgment in determining which of the legally permissible sentences to give the defendant, taking into account the details of the particular case. Some offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences, however, where the law requires judges to assign a certain penalty for certain crimes. If the jury finds you guilty of one of these offenses, then even the most skilled criminal defense lawyer cannot argue your way out of jail if the offense carries a mandatory sentence of incarceration.
Arguments for and Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Why would the law impose mandatory minimum sentences instead of letting judges use their own judgment? One of the reasons is that it prevents judges from being arbitrary. Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences argue that, without mandatory minimums, judges could use their personal biases and give one defendant a much heavier sentence than another for the same crime. Proponents of mandatory minimums also say that they act as deterrents to crime. The logic is that people will be less likely to engage in a certain illegal act if they know for certain that, if they are found guilty of such a crime, they will certainly receive the mandatory minimum sentence, with no chance of a lesser punishment.
The argument against mandatory minimum sentencing laws is that they often result in prison sentences for people who have never committed a violent crime. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, some people are forced to spend decades in prison for nonviolent crimes, sometimes something as minor as simple drug possession.
Furthermore, opponents of mandatory minimum sentences argue that mandatory minimum sentences do not actually prevent crime. While they agree that people decide to commit a crime based on the belief that the potential gain outweighs the risk, they claim that the biggest deterrent to crime would be increased chances of getting caught, rather than increased severity of punishment if you are caught. After all, if no one catches you stealing, the consequences are still no punishment at all, whether the sentence for a theft conviction is probation or jail. Besides, the justice system still has ways of being unjust, even with mandatory minimum sentences. If law enforcement turns a blind eye to one person committing a crime while going out of its way to catch another in the act of committing the same crime, that is no better than assigning different sentences for the same crime.
Three Strikes Laws for Greenville Criminal Defense Cases
Many states have so-called “three strikes” laws, which increase the mandatory punishment depending on whether it is the defendant’s first, second, or third time being convicted of the same offense. It is worth noting that, for this reason, jurors are not supposed to be told about mandatory minimum sentences during a trial, because if they knew how harsh the punishment was, they would be more likely to acquit a defendant who was clearly guilty of the charges, simply out of human compassion. The third offense often carries a mandatory sentence of a lengthy prison term, even for non-violent offenses. These are some examples of very long prison sentences imposed on defendants for relatively minor offenses, because of three strikes laws.
- Leandro Andrade was sentenced to fifty years in prison without parole. His crime was stealing nine VHS tapes. Andrade appealed the decision, claiming that what essentially amounted to life imprisonment was cruel and unusual punishment for the non-violent offense of stealing video tapes. (Consider that the fact that Jean Valjean’s original sentence, four years imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, is considered an unfairly harsh punishment in 19th century France, is a major plot point in Les Miserables). In Lockyer v. Andrade, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the sentence was not cruel and unusual punishment. Andrade remains in prison, where he has been since 1995, while the VHS tape and several of its successor home video formats have come and gone.
- Timothy Tyler was sentenced to life in prison for possession of LSD. An undercover DEA informant persuaded Tyler to mail him LSD, and in 1994, he began serving his life sentence. In 2016, President Obama granted Tyler clemency. Tyler will be released from prison in August 2018.
Exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences can occasionally be achieved. Judges can use the “safety valve” privilege to grant an exception to the mandatory minimum sentence and instead impose a lighter sentence. Usually, federal judges can only invoke the safety valve if the defendant is a first-time offender and if the crime is nonviolent.
South Carolina Reforms Some Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Because of the belief that long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes are unfair, and also because of evidence that prison terms are not effective at preventing recidivism (committing more crimes after being convicted of one), many states are reforming their mandatory minimum sentence requirements. Beginning in 2010, there is no longer a mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time conviction for drug possession. Previously, second and third convictions for drug possession had mandatory prison sentences. Since 2010, however, probation is also an option for repeat convictions for drug possession.
How the Right Greenville Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
If you are convicted of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, there is little judges or attorneys can do to keep you out of prison. It is often possible, however, to have the charges reduced to a charge that does not carry such a harsh sentence. Reducing the charges often requires the defendant to enter a plea agreement. If you find yourself facing any kind of criminal charges, a Greenville criminal defense attorney can give you the best advice on how to proceed with your case. Contact The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin in Greenville, South Carolina.