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How Congress Forbids Judges From Doing Their Job

How should the punishment for convicted offenders be determined?

Option 1: Judges have discretion and flexibility when it comes to determining punishment. They have the ability to determine the length of prison sentences for convicted offenders based on a number of factors. Judges are allowed to weigh the individual circumstances of the case including the convicted defendant’s damage to the victim (if there is one), the degree of planning and participation in the crime. They may also take into consideration the convicted defendant’s prior criminal record (if any), evidence of good character, mental illnesses, age, post-crime behavior, and other factors.


Option 2: Judges have no discretion and flexibility when it comes to determining punishment. If a defendant is found guilty of a certain crime, a judge is required by law to sentence them to at least a set amount of time behind bars as determined by Congress. It’s a one-size-fits-all automatic punishment. The individual circumstances of the case are not taken into consideration. Judges' hands are tied. They are not allowed to reduce the sentence if they determine that the punishment does not fit the crime.

Clearly, option 1 is a better way to ensure justice. This is how the U.S. judicial system used to work when judges were allowed to tailor a punishment fitting of the specific case.

Today, that’s not always the case.

A huge problem is that Congress has dramatically limited judicial discretion and independence over the past few decades. Starting from the 1980’s, Congress has passed a series of mandatory minimum sentencing laws as described in option 2. While supporters of these laws are likely well-intentioned, one-size-fits-all punishment strategies don’t realistically work.

It's time to reconsider mandatory minimum sentencing laws and allow judges to do their job.