MANDATORY SENTENCING: TOO HARSH OR JUST RIGHT?
Mandatory sentencing has gotten some bad press in Colorado lately. The high profile case of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, the truck driver who was sentenced to 100 years in prison after a deadly accident has called the Colorado sentencing laws into question. (check out our podcast on the case here) The truck driver, who was sober at the time, lost his brakes on Colorado’s I-70 and crashed into multiple cars, killing four people. After Aguilera-Mederos was given a sentence that is more than twice as long as some murderers, even the judge had regrets about having to hand out such a harsh sentence. But Colorado law forced him to do so.
You might be asking: How could such a disproportionate sentence be handed out in America? We will look into the history, the details, and problems with mandatory sentencing in this article in order to answer this question. What should be done about it? We explore that, too.
Why do we use mandatory sentencing?
According to some experts, mandatory sentencing began in the mid 1970s as a response by conservative politicians to rising crime rates. Richard Nixon was re-elected largely on his campaign to get tough on crime and impose harsher penalties for criminals. Ronald Reagan’s continuation of Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was enormously popular with conservatives. Today’s politicians are still using “law and order” lines to get voters.
But there has been a backlash against harsh sentencing in the media. Some activists and experts point out that these sentences usually affect people of color disproportionately. High profile individuals, including Kim Kardashian, have campaigned to end mandatory sentencing all together. She has taken particular interest in the case of the truck driver, Aguilera-Mederos, urging the Colorado governor to reconsider the 110 year sentence.
Which crimes carry mandatory sentencing penalties?
Class 1 Felonies – These are the most serious crimes of all. They include first degree murder, kidnapping, and treason. In Colorado, these crimes carry a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
Level 1 Drug Felonies – These drug felonies are the most serious and involve selling drugs at high quantities. The mandatory sentence for a Level 1 drug felony is 12 years in prison.
Drug Felonies generally – If a person has been convicted of drug felonies twice, at any level, they must serve the minimum sentence for their most recent drug felony. This range falls between 6 months to 8 years in prison.
Crimes of violence – These are serious crimes in which the perpetrator caused the victim serious bodily injury or used a deadly weapon to harm them. These include crimes like aggravated robbery, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. A person who has been convicted of a crime of violence must be sentenced to at least the mid-way point in the normal sentence for these felonies. If a deadly weapon was used, an additional five years is added to the sentence.
Habitual criminals – These crimes refer to repeat perpetrators of felonies, with the largest penalties for those having committed crimes of violence. Mandatory sentences for these crimes can span between 48 years up to life imprisonment.
Sex offenses – These crimes are punished more harshly in proportion to their seriousness. Terms of these penalties include whether the sex offense was a violent crime, if the perpetrator is a habitual offender, and even whether the perpetrator was diagnosed with HIV before the sex offense occurred. These offenses all carry mandatory sentencing based on the severity of the crimes.
Why do mandatory sentences get such a bad reputation?
The answer to this question is simple: one size does not fit all. Every case is different. Every defendant is different. There are extenuating circumstances that vary from case to case. And math even comes into it! Take Mr. Aguilera-Mederos, for instance. He had no prior criminal offenses and no alcohol or drugs in his system. He was driving on a busy Colorado highway and his brakes went out. He was likely so terrified and out of control that he missed a turnoff or runaway truck ramp, crashing into several cars at top speed. The mandatory sentencing statutes were likely not created for a defendant such as Aguilera-Mederos, who was not a habitual offender and would likely pose no harm to others in the future. But district attorneys are known for their keen negotiating tactics and this often includes tacking on multiple charges in order to convince a defendant to take a plea bargain. In Aguilera-Mederos’ case, the prosecutors added on multiple assault with a deadly weapon charges (each a separate crime of violence), which when served back to back and added to the other charges, result in a virtual life sentence.
Famously, during the Reagan administration, there was a government initiative to become tougher on drug possessions, specifically crack cocaine. The possession of just a small amount of crack cocaine carried a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. We now know that this “crack-down” caused the mass incarceration of a mostly-Black population. Because crack cocaine is cheaper and easier to make, those in poverty, including many people of color, were much more likely to use and sell the drug. This resulted in huge incarceration rates for these populations. In recent years, the effects of these laws have received a lot of scrutiny and criticism. In an effort to relieve some of these harsh penalties, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 into law. This requires all sentences to be proportionate in cases of crack possession. Many see this as one stepping stone towards changing mandatory sentencing laws.
What is the future of mandatory sentencing laws?
It is unlikely that all mandatory sentencing laws will be repealed. However, public opinion seems to be aligning behind the idea of repealing them in some states and in the federal courts. You may be wondering whether that gives courts unfettered discretion in their sentencing decisions. This would never be the case. Judges would still need to abide by normal sentencing laws. However, instead of cherry-picking certain crimes to be punished harshly no matter the circumstances, each case could be fairly adjudicated and sentenced according to the facts.
Perhaps due to the intense media attention, Colorado’s Governor Polis reduced Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence from 110 years down to just ten years. If this is any indication of the general trend in sentencing, we are likely to see more public outcry about such outlandish punishments in the future.
If you or someone you know is in legal trouble, reach out to Hebets & McCallin. We can help!