Prosecutorial Discretion and the Imposition of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

John H. Kramer, The Pennsylvania State University
Jeffery T. Ulmer, The Pennsylvania State University
Megan Kurlychek, The Pennsylvania State University

The imposition of mandatory minimum sentences is a perhaps overlooked opportunity to examine prosecutorial discretion, as well as sentencing disparity. In Pennsylvania, for example, the decision to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence belongs solely to the prosecutor. Given a conviction charge that is eligible for a mandatory minimum, the prosecutor decides whether to make a motion for the application of the mandatory minimum. If, the prosecutor so moves, then the court must sentence accordingly. Thus, in Pennsylvania, the decision to impose a mandatory minimum rests solely with the prosecutor. This situation presents an important opportunity to examine a "pure" situation in which prosecutorial decision directly determines the sentence. Using data from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing for years 1998-2000, we investigate the effects of offense and offender characteristics, case processing factors, and court community locality on whether or not drug and repeat offenders who were eligible for mandatory minimum sentences actually received them. In other words, we analyze the prosecutorial decision to impose a mandatory minimum among a subsample of mandatory-eligible offenders sentenced for drug crimes or as repeat offenders. We frame and interpret our analysis and findings vis a vis Albonetti's uncertainty reduction theory of prosecutorial discretion, the view of courts as communities, and a focal concerns theory criminal justice decision making.

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Updated 05/20/2006