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Key Legislative Issues in Criminal Justice: Mandatory Sentencing

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 1996
6 pages
Publication Series

Mandatory sentencing enhancements, including the widely debated three-strikes laws, aim to deter known and potentially violent offenders and incapacitate convicted criminals through long-term incarceration, and the impact and effectiveness of mandatory sentencing are discussed.


Studies have described a number of consequences of mandatory sentencing laws. For example, study findings indicate that arrest rates, indictments, plea bargains, and convictions decline after mandatory sentencing laws go into effect, while early dismissals, early diversions, trial rates, and sentencing delays increase. The net probability that offenders will be imprisoned is not affected by mandatory sentencing laws, but sentence length increases for those who are imprisoned. Studies of sentencing practices in Federal courts provide no compelling evidence that judges unfairly apply mandatory minimum sentences to racial and ethnic minorities, although blacks receive longer sentences than whites in Federal courts according to one study because they constitute the majority of those convicted of crack cocaine trafficking. Studies indicate that three-strikes laws are costly. In particular, a study of California's statute projects that the law will increase the prison population over the next 25 years by a factor of three, increase costs during the same period by $5.5 billion yearly, and reduce serious crime by 28 percent at a total correctional cost of approximately $16,300 per crime averted. An alternative to mandatory sentences is the use of presumptive sentences. Other recommendations include directing mandatory sentencing laws only at a few especially serious crimes, subjecting long mandatory sentences to periodic administrative review, including a funding plan in sentencing legislation to ensure awareness of and responsibility for long-term costs, and developing policies that effectively and systematically use intermediate sanctions. 15 notes

Date Published: January 1, 1996