In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Resources
  • Habitual Offender and Three-Strikes Laws
  • Deterrence and Incapacitation Effects
  • Extralegal Disparity in Application
  • Mandatory Minimums for Firearms
  • Mandatory Minimums for Drugs

Criminology Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Brian D. Johnson, Kathryn Kozey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0112


Mandatory minimum penalties are criminal sentences that involve minimum punishments determined by statutory law. They can apply to specific offenses, specific offenders, or to particular combinations of offense and offender characteristics. Although mandatory minimum penalties vary by state and by type of crime, they typically require some minimum term of incarceration to be served by the offender. Some mandatory minimums apply to specific offense behavior (e.g., five years for possession of a firearm), whereas others, such as “habitual offender laws,” apply to specific categories of repeat offenders. “Three-strikes laws” are well-known examples of habitual offender laws that typically require a sentence of twenty-five years to life for a third-time violent felon. Although the US Congress repealed most mandatory minimum sentences in 1970, by 1994 all fifty states had reenacted one or more mandatory sentencing laws, and the federal justice system now has more than one hundred different mandatory sentencing provisions. Mandatory minimum sentences have been heavily criticized by academic scholars for their severity, rigidity, selective application, and widespread circumvention. These minimum sentences remain relatively popular among the general public, although they have been criticized by academics and prisoner rights groups.

General Overviews

Few comprehensive overviews of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions exist. Tonry 1992 and Tonry 1996 provide what are perhaps the most complete summaries of these laws, although both are now quite dated. Reviews of the empirical evidence for the deterrent effects of mandatory minimums conclude that, overall, they are an ineffective sentencing policy and should be repealed or amended. Haerens 2010 provides opposing arguments for and against mandatory minimums in an edited volume that is appropriate for undergraduate students. Several detailed reports on mandatory minimum sentencing have been produced by government agencies. These include Parent, et al. 1997, which provides a concise overview of a broad range of issues surrounding mandatory sentencing, as well as two reports from the US Sentencing Commission (USSC), both of which use federal sentencing data and point out a number of potential criticisms such as circumvention and disparity in their application (US Sentencing Commission 1991, US Sentencing Commission 2011). Vincent and Hofer 1994 not only provides analyses and criticism of federal mandatory sentencing but also reviews and summarizes previous academic research on the topic. Bureau of Justice Assistance 1996 provides a useful, though somewhat dated, summary of sentencing in all fifty states, including a chapter on mandatory minimums.

  • Bureau of Justice Assistance. 1996. National assessment of structured sentencing. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Assistance.

    This monograph provides a detailed, though somewhat dated, overview of structured sentencing innovations in all fifty states, including historical trends in sentencing reforms. Includes a chapter that examines mandatory minimum incarceration sentences in the United States and the offenses to which they may apply by state.

  • Haerens, Margaret, ed. 2010. Mandatory minimum sentencing. Opposing Viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven.

    Explores the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on crime—including drug mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and alternatives such as drug court supervision—by presenting opposing opinions that argue for and against it. Appropriate for an undergraduate course.

  • Parent, Dale, Terence Dunworth, Douglas McDonald, and William Rhodes. 1997. Key legislative issues in criminal justice: Mandatory sentencing. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    A useful government report that provides a succinct overview of various aspects of mandatory minimum sentencing. Rationales for mandatory sentencing are discussed, as well as the impact of these laws on crime, case-processing outcomes, imprisonment, prison lengths, and extralegal disparity.

  • Tonry, Michael H. 1992. Mandatory penalties. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 16. Edited by Michael H. Tonry, 243–273. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Comprehensive overview of mandatory sentencing provisions that provides historical perspective on these laws, discusses public support for them, and provides an extensive discussion of their limitations, including a general lack of deterrent effects, frequent court actor circumvention, and negative effects on various case-processing outcomes. Policy recommendations are made for addressing these limitations.

  • Tonry, Michael H. 1996. Sentencing matters. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a brief history of the development of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the United States and discusses contemporary research findings on the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences, arguing they have no deterrent effect on serious crime. Discusses several ongoing problems associated with mandatory minimum sentencing, which include excessive severity, increased trial rates, and routine circumvention, and offers numerous policy recommendations for amending mandatory sentencing policies in the United States.

  • US Sentencing Commission. 1991. Special report to the Congress: Mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system. Washington, DC: US Sentencing Commission.

    A study of mandatory minimum sentencing in federal courts that suggested federal mandatory minimums are at times unduly severe. Mandatory minimums significantly shift sentencing discretion from judges to prosecutors, increase trial rates, lengthen case-processing time, result in frequent circumvention, and, overall, tend to be disliked by most federal court actors other than prosecutors.

  • US Sentencing Commission. 2011. Report to Congress: Mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system. Washington, DC: US Sentencing Commission.

    An updated assessment of the impact of mandatory minimum penalties on federal sentencing post–United States v. Booker, which rendered the federal sentencing guidelines advisory. Reviews the history of mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system and discusses them in the context of federal sentencing guidelines. Finds that over 25 percent of offenders are convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum and shows inconsistencies in their application.

  • Vincent, Barbara S., and Paul J. Hofer. 1994. The consequences of mandatory minimum prison terms: A summary of recent findings. Washington, DC: Federal Judicial Center.

    Analyzes federal sentencing data, supplemented with actual cases, and summarizes previous studies on the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Argues that many low-level offenders receive lengthy terms of incarceration under these laws, which compromises the fairness and integrity of the system and costs the federal government millions of dollars per year. Mandatory minimums are often circumvented, transfer discretion from judges to prosecutors, and have a disparate impact on racial minorities.

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