Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: Laws, History, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes mandatory minimum sentencing. Review mandatory minimum sentencing laws and examine the history of the laws. Finally, compare the pros and cons of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.


How would you feel if a loved one was badly injured in an attack and the assailant was let go with a slap on the wrist? The above scenario has given rise to the need for mandatory minimum sentencing. These are laws that have been enacted so that criminals serve at least minimum time. This also removes any discretion from judges to set sentences.


Mandatory minimum sentencing arose due to an outcry of victims and victims' families to the light sentences that some criminals received for committing a crime. It was perceived that the judges sometimes empathized more with the criminal than the victim, with judges often looking to the socioeconomic background of the criminal as the justification for their crimes. Moreover, there was a sentiment that criminals may occasionally get away with crimes, so there was a policy to prevent this from occurring.


The first mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted in 1951. These laws were aimed at drug offenses and required a three- to five-year minimum sentence. Additional drug minimum sentence laws were passed in the 1950s.

However, in the late 1970s, these laws were repealed. Under the Reagan administration, drugs became a significant policy issue. As a result, mandatory minimum drug sentencing became a priority. Consequently, various mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were passed, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which required mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

Since then, states have enacted their own laws for repeat drug offenders, such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Massachusetts has a Habitual Offender Law, which requires minimum sentences for repeat offenders.

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