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Mandatory Sentencing Laws

NCJ Number
Lenny Roth
Date Published
January 2014
15 pages

This "e-brief" summarizes the debate on mandatory sentencing laws in Australian States, with attention to New South Wales.


Mandatory sentencing laws are generally considered to be those laws that specify a minimum penalty or a fixed penalty that a judge must impose on an offender convicted of a particular offense or who has been convicted of an offense for a specified number of times (e.g., "three strikes" laws). Mandatory sentencing laws may either be strict in their application or may allow judges to depart from the minimum or fixed penalty in certain narrowly defined circumstances. Three arguments are outlined for enacting these laws. First, they ensure that sentences reflect community standards and are not unduly lenient given the severity of the targeted crimes. Second, they reduce crime by deterring potential offenders and incapacitating dangerous and habitual offenders. Third, the laws can be precise in specifying the features of crimes and/or offenders that are severely harmful to victims. Four arguments are outlined in opposition to mandatory sentencing laws. First, since the laws cannot define every conceivable circumstance of similar offenses, they remove the judicial discretion needed to tailor sentencing to each case. Second, there is evidence that increasing penalties for an offense does not deter potential offenders from committing the offense. Third, mandatory laws impose increased costs on the justice system by reducing plea negotiations and increasing trials and by increasing prison costs due to increased incarceration rates and longer prison terms. Fourth, other less severe and less costly sentencing alternatives can reduce targeted crimes more effectively and at less cost. This e-brief reviewed existing proposed mandatory sentencing laws in New South Wales and other Australian States, noting some of their effects and the continuing debate outlined in this brief. 58 notes