Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures

7. The Economic impact of mandatory sentences

7. The Economic impact of mandatory sentences

7.1 Court Costs

Assessments of California's “Three Strikes” law indicate that the number of trials increase dramatically as defendant's have little incentive to plead guilty on charges for eligible offences (Harris and Jesilow, 2000). A bipartisan committee established by the US Congress to study the federal courts estimated that even a five percent reduction in guilty pleas would result in a 33 to 50 percent increase in trials (Federal Courts Study Committee, 1990; cited in Wallace, 1993).

Carlson and Nidey (1995) studied the impact of a two-day minimum jail sentence (along with mandatory participation in an education program) on the processing of domestic assault cases in an Iowa county. They examined half of all the serious and aggravated misdemeanor domestic abuse assault cases filed in the county for one year immediately preceding and two years immediately following the implementation of the measures (June 1992). The investigators also conducted formal interviews with four defense attorneys and one district court judge. They found that the length of time taken to adjudicate cases increased and that cases became substantially more complex and time consuming in the year immediately following the new measures. The interviews indicated that the MMS reduced the incentive for defendants to plead guilty, resulting in increased workloads. Public defenders and prosecutors had to prepare for more trials and subpoena more witnesses, court staff had to manage the increase in trial time, and judges had to hear more cases. This relatively mild minimum penalty therefore added substantially to the cost of processing cases.

Cushman (1996) reported on the expected increase in demand on the resources of three California counties produced by the “Three Strikes” law. These projections were based on an exercise involving judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, and law enforcement officials in which 73 cases adjudicated prior to the law were re-examined to ascertain how they might be adjudicated under the “Three Strikes” law. This exercise revealed that the expected increase in jury trials in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and San Diego Counties was 144%, 193%, and 300%, respectively. In Los Angeles, in absolute terms, this would mean an additional 3,400 jury trials in one year. Furthermore, while 94% of California felony cases were disposed of through plea bargaining prior to the law, just 6% of Three Strikes cases were resolved in that manner following its implementation. Increasing jury trials means more jurors, hearings, longer preliminary hearings, increasing defence costs, more court security, and a larger pre-trial jail population (Cushman, 1996). Civil litigation, too, may be affected by an increase in jury trials, as delays for civil litigants increase. The greater use of incarceration brought about by Three Strikes and related laws might have the benefit of lower probation caseloads, although this saving would not offset the additional court and prison costs.

The costs of implementing MMS may be offset, to some degree at least, by their crime preventive effects (Austin, 1996), although evidence from California suggests that the state's Three Strikes law has not produced savings with regard to insurance premiums, security expenses, or victim services (Schultz, 2000). Some jurisdictions report that the pressure on prosecutorial resources and on local jails is such that many misdemeanour cases are being dismissed (Cushman, 1996). Thus, a major side effect of severe MMS is a weakening of the justice system's ability to deal with offences not covered by the law in question.

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