The Flaws of Mandatory Sentencing in the Criminal Justice System

The Criminal Justice System (CJS) of the US is very flawed. Recidivism, as defined by the criminal justice system, is the tendency for past offenders to relapse into criminal behavior. This is often a result of their inability to reintegrate back into society after being incarcerated. Some arguments that have been made is that recidivism is a product of mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentencing is the required minimum amount of time for criminal offenders who meet certain criteria. This requires that they must spend some time in prison before being allowed on parole (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2018). Generally, these offenses are violent or dangerous crimes that put society in harm. However, offenses such as drug charges are persecuted more often. The effectiveness of mandatory sentencing has long been debated and people are now realizing that while it may have been effective in the past, there are too many repercussions that outweigh the benefits.


There is much debate about whether mandatory sentencing is the best method to use for incarceration, which is a part of the CJS sentencing process aimed at preventing criminal offenders from repeating by imprisoning them. More generally, some argue that incapacitation is immoral (Roche, 1999). Crime rates tend to spike around late adolescence/early adulthood, so one of the main arguments is that when criminals are incarcerated, they have already reached an age where they will start to cease criminal behavior. This is problematic because when criminals are released from prison, despite being past the peak age for criminal offending, they are more likely to re-offend because their criminal record impedes their chance of being hired at most offices. This unfortunately forces them to turn back to a life of crime because it is their only means of making money and supporting their families.

The most frequently discussed crimes in mandatory sentencing criticisms are drug offenses. One law professor found that “in many drug operations, if a low-level offender is incapacitated, another may quickly take his place through what is known as the ‘replacement effect’” (Larkin). The lack of change in prison rates demonstrates how ineffective mandatory sentencing is. Even though one criminal is incarcerated, mandatory sentencing has shown no proof that it acts as a general deterrence to the rest of society. Additionally, drug crimes are not the most serious offenses that America faces. While the prevalence rates of drug crimes are high, sentencings for those cases are arbitrary and a waste of resources that could be better spent on more violent criminals.

One argument made against mandatory sentencing laws is that they have not decreased crime rates in a significant way. While the power of sentencing shifted from judge to prosecutor, there are still many disparities in sentencing. This begs the question: why do prosecutors have almost unlimited discretion when handling a case if they have no proper training in sentencing? Unlike judges who are influenced less by court cases, prosecutors stand to gain more by successfully convicting an offender. This decreases their credibility, yet they are still allowed more discretion in cases.

Significance (Influence on the CJS)

Mandatory sentencing has a huge impact on the Criminal Justice System, especially the corrections unit. Incarceration, while it may be needed for violent or dangerous criminals, is not necessarily needed for all the criminals that receive it. Mandatory sentencing, requiring that people spend a certain amount of their sentence in prison, is meant to deter criminals from committing crimes again, but there are many repercussions that people experience from spending their sentence in prison (Cole et al., 2018). One of the main arguments currently being debated is the recidivism rate that the CJS experiences. The U.S. Department of Justice recently reported the most recent statistics of recidivism for this year. 83% of offenders released in 2005 were found to have relapsed into crime within nine years of being released from prison (Alper & Durose, 2018).

Additionally, another issue that mandatory sentencing brings up for the Criminal Justice System is that it is expensive. With prisoners constantly being filtered through the system, the CJS has to replenish their resources much more frequently than it used to. “There are increased costs in the court system as more defendants contest charges to try to avoid the mandatory penalty that follows conviction, where they otherwise may have entered a plea of guilty” (Roche, 1999). Recidivism is also a main contributor to the increasing expenses. More people returning to prison, in addition to the people already there, creates problems like overcrowding and also causes an extreme need for resources such as more guards, more space for prisoners, more food, etc. While it is necessary for prisons to be safe, allocating unnecessary resources there is once again a waste of resources and government money.


One organization called Law Enforcement Leaders is incredibly motivated to reform mandatory minimums. They “urge Congress and state legislatures to reduce mandatory minimum sentences set by law, and also reduce maximum sentences” (Reforming) in the hopes that they will reduce the length of a sentence as well as the likelihood of recidivism. Thus far, they have had successes in two states where this has been tried. In Kentucky the number of inmates in prison dropped by 1,400 people in 2011. This reform movement was both cost effective and reduced crime rate. In New York, they were able to reduce recidivism rates from 54 to 36 percent. This is a drastic change for such a short period of time and gives hope to the idea that mandatory sentencing laws can be changed for the better. Different types of correctional facilities can be used to decrease the number of prisoners in prison. Rehabilitation of prisoners that have been incarcerated are much more effective in reforming the person and reducing recidivism rates (Cole et al., 2018).


In conclusion, the assumption that mandatory sentencing laws work towards creating a better and safer society is wrong. Most criminals are let back into the world with the intention of reforming themselves; however, most have circumstances that prevent reform and encourage recidivism. Mandatory sentencing forces a low-level criminal who hopes to lead a stable, legal lifestyle back into criminality. Criminal records are the main cause of this because without one a person would have a much better chance of getting a stable job and potentially setting down roots. Clearly, recidivism rates are not decreasing, and mandatory sentencing has proven arbitrary and unsuccessful. It is time for change in our criminal justice system.

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