Exemptions from Mandatory Minimum Penalties - Recent Developments in Selected Countries
Types of Relief Available
Different types of relief from or exceptions to the application of mandatory minimum penalties have been adopted in the laws reviewed here. Each of these approaches is reviewed below, but it should be noted that these categories are far from being mutually exclusive.
1. Relief or exclusion from the application of mandatory minimum penalties to those under 18 (juveniles)
In the United States, as mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court abolished mandatory life imprisonment without parole of juvenile offendersFootnote 38 (Fiorillo, 2013: Price, 2013). Some of the states that have adopted mandatory minimum penalties for specified offences have also created some exceptions to the application of these minimum penalties in the case of juvenile offenders. This is the case, for example, in the State of Montana where the Code creates an exception to mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who were less than 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the offence.Footnote 39
In the States of Washington and Oregon, the exception to the application of mandatory minimum penalties applies explicitly to sentences imposed upon any person waived from the juvenile court (tried and sentenced as an adult).Footnote 40 In Oregon, however, there are also exceptions to the exception: mandatory minimum penalties can still be imposed in the case of a juvenile sentenced as an adult for aggravated murdersFootnote 41, and as an enhanced penalty for use of a firearm during the commission of a felony.Footnote 42 Other states have elected to make the mandatory minimum penalties presumptive instead of compulsory in the case of offenders under the age of 18.Footnote 43
In England and Wales, most mandatory minimum sentences only apply to offenders who, at the time when that offence was committed, were 18 or overFootnote 44, but there are instances where minimum penalties may apply also to offenders between the ages of 16 and 18.Footnote 45 Note that s. 291 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 also provides the Secretary of State with the power by order to exclude application of a minimum sentence for certain firearm offences to those under 18.
In South Africa, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1997, mandatory minimum sentences are not applicable to a child who was under the age of 16 when he or she committed the offence. Should a court decide to impose a minimum sentence upon a child who, at the time of the commission of the offence, was 16 years or older, but under the age of 18 years, the court has, in terms of s. 51(3)(b), to enter its reasons for its decision on the record of the proceedings. However, in Jan Hendrik Brandt v The State the Supreme Court of Appeal held that the legislative scheme entails that the fact that an offender is under 18 although over 16 at the time of the offence automatically confers a discretion on the sentencing court which is more free to depart from the prescribed minimum sentence.Footnote 46 As a result, the sentencing court is generally free to apply the usual sentencing criteria in deciding on an appropriate sentence and offenders under 18 (though over 16).
2. Reduction of minimum penalty for early guilty pleas
There are complex and confounding relations between mandatory minimum penalties, plea negotiation practices, the charging process and sentencing patterns. It is often alleged and there is some evidence to support that the establishment of mandatory minimum penalties lead to some “adjustments” in practice to the plea negotiation and charging processes (Cano and Spohn, 2012; Merritt et al., 2006; Tonry, 2006; 2009; Ulmer et al., 2007; United States Sentencing Commission, 2011; Cappelino and Meringolo, 2014). From a justice system efficiency point of view, it may be advantageous to find ways to increase the likelihood of an early guilty plea. Guilty pleas, particularly when they are entered early in the criminal justice process, can significantly speed up criminal proceedings, eliminate the need for many adjournments and a trial, reduce the need for costly and complicated disclosure processes, and reduce the overall costs of the system. Many jurisdictions have explored ways of increasing the likelihood that accused individuals will not only plead guilty, but also do so at an early stage in the process (Dandurand, 2014).
Legal provisions establishing mandatory minimum penalties for certain offences typically remove any incentive an offender may have to plead guilty or to cooperate with the prosecution in such cases. Mandatory penalties can increase trial rates and thereby increase workloads and case processing time. In the United States’ federal system, for example, there is clear evidence that accused individuals choose to go to trial because of charges carrying mandatory minimum penalties (United States Sentencing Commission, 2011: 116). Prosecutors facing these situations have often found ways to use their discretionary authority to frame the charges in such a way as to circumvent the application of these provisions.
It is possible for the legislator to specifically create an exception to the strict application of mandatory minimum penalties for offenders who plead guilty at an early stage of the process, thus creating an explicit incentive for early guilty pleas. It is also possible for the legislator to provide offenders with an incentive for pleading guilty and collaborating with the prosecution by specifically creating an exception to the application of the mandatory minimum penalties for offenders offering assistance to the prosecution. This kind of exception (or “departure” from the mandatory minimum penalties) is found in the United States federal criminal law relating to certain drug offences. The second approach will be discussed separately in the next section.
England and Wales – Reduction of sentences for early guilty pleas
In England and Wales, s. 152 of the Powers of the Criminal Court (Sentencing) Act 2000 foresees the possibility for the court to reduce a sentence)Footnote 47. This possibility only exists for the court to do so in relation to the minimum penalties established for drug related offences by s. 110 and by s. 111 for domestic burglary.Footnote 48 In such cases, the court may impose a sentence that is no less than 80 percent of the mandatory minimum sentence specified in the law and must state in open court that it has done so:
- 152. (1) In determining what sentence to pass on an offender who has pleaded guilty to an offence in proceedings before that or another court, a court shall take into account—
- the stage in the proceedings for the offence at which the offender indicated his intention to plead guilty; and
- the circumstances in which this indication was given.
- (2) If, as a result of taking into account any matter referred to in subsection (1) above, the court imposes a punishment on the offender which is less severe than the punishment it would otherwise have imposed, it shall state in open court that it has done so.
- (3) In the case of an offence the sentence for which falls to be imposed under subsection (2) of section 110 or 111 above, nothing in that subsection shall prevent the court, after taking into account any matter referred to in subsection (1) above, from imposing any sentence which is not less than 80 per cent of that specified in that subsection.
A similar possibility for exceptions was not created for the minimum sentences provisions of s. 109 of the same ActFootnote 49 relating to offenders convicted of a third or subsequent serious offence.Footnote 50
3. Relief for defendants who offer substantial assistance to the state
Many of the reliefs available in different jurisdictions are tied to the offender’s cooperation with the state, or at the very least an agreement to plead guilty. However, some jurisdictions have adopted sentence reduction schemes that apply specifically in cases where a mandatory minimum penalty is required under the law. Such sentence reduction is usually activated at the discretion of the prosecutors who can initiate a motion.
The discretion inherent in the substantial assistance departure provisions allows prosecutors and judges to openly circumvent mandatory minimum sentences. In the United States, it is frequently observed that the existence of mandatory minimum penalties constrains judges’ discretion, but that the possibility of departures from the minimum penalties to recognize “substantial assistance” to the government provides prosecutors and judges with an important tool for avoiding mandatory penalties. These substantial assistance provisions clearly serve the operational interests of the prosecution by providing offenders with a clear inducement to plead guilty and to cooperate as informants when they can (Martin, 2001).
Federal criminal law USA – 18 USC §3553 (E)
In the United States, the mandatory penalties may not have to be applied in certain instances if an offender qualifies for a “substantial assistance departure.” The federal criminal law establishes a limited authority to impose a sentence below a statutory minimum penalty: 18 USC 3553(e):
Upon motion of the Government, the court shall have the authority to impose a sentence below a level established by statute as a minimum sentence so as to reflect a defendant’s substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense. Such sentence shall be imposed in accordance with the guidelines and policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to section 994 of title 28, United States Code.Footnote 51
This is a motion made by the prosecution once the defendant has entered a plea of guilty. Upon a motion of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a defendant who renders “substantial assistance” to law enforcement (however defined by the U.S. Attorney’s Office) may be sentenced below the sentencing guidelines’ recommended minimum. If the court grants the motion, the sentencing judge is free to depart anywhere below the minimum recommended by the guidelines.Footnote 52 The judge’s decision regarding the appropriate reduction may rest on such things as the significance and usefulness of the defendant’s assistance; the truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of the information provided; the nature, extent, and timeliness of the defendant’s assistance; and, any danger or risk that resulted from the defendant’s assistance.
It is clear that different charging and plea negotiation practices have developed in various federal districts that resulted in the disparate application of certain mandatory minimum penalties, particularly those provisions that require substantial increases in sentence length (USSC, 2011: 345). In 2010, almost half (46.7%) of offenders convicted of an offence carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were relieved from the application of such a penalty at sentencing because they provided substantial assistance to the government or qualified for the “safety valve” relief (USSC, 2011: xxviii). Concerns have been raised about the impact of these exceptions on offenders who do not benefit from them or, for example, refuse to plead guilty and collaborate with the government. There is evidence that federal defendants who exercise their right to trial and are convicted receive more severe sentences, a consequence known as a “trial penalty.” Trial penalties vary among types of offences and the characteristics of the offender. However, they were shown to proportionately increase as sentencing guidelines’ minimum sentencing recommendations increase (Ulmer, Eisenstein and Johnson, 2010).
Mario Cano and Cassia Spohn, summarizing the research on “substantial assistance departures” from mandatory minimum sentences, note that legally irrelevant factors affect the likelihood of receiving substantial assistance departures and the magnitude of the sentence discount from which the offenders benefit (Cano and Spohn, 2012). These departures, they argue, may be the primary source of unwarranted sentencing disparity found in research on federal sentence outcomes.
There is clear evidence that substantial assistance departures are used to mitigate the sentences of “sympathetic” and “salvageable” offenders. A study by Nagel and Schulhofer, focusing on guideline circumvention in three U.S. district courts in 1989 and 1990, found that downward departures for substantial assistance were used to mitigate the sentences of “salvageable” or “sympathetic” defendants and that prosecutorial decisions to file motions for substantial assistance departures were based on an assessment of the value of the case and the sentence that was deserved (Nagel and Schulhofer, 1992). Other studies of the impact of offender and case characteristics on sentence outcomes and substantial assistance departures in cases where offenders were facing mandatory minimum penalties have reached similar conclusions (Farrell, 2004; Hartley, 2008; Hartley et al., 2007; Kautt and Delone, 2006; Ortiz and Spohn, 2014; Spohn and Fornango, 2009).
A study of federal sentencing of narcotic offenders in five federal districts near the American southwest border confirmed that departures are significant predictors of sentence-length decisions for both citizens and noncitizens, and in some districts, citizenship status indirectly influences sentences through departure decisions (Hartley and Armendariz, 2011).Footnote 53 Several studies have looked at substantial assistance departures and how they are used to reduce the sentences of certain types of offenders facing mandatory minimum penalties (Stacey and Spohn, 2006; Cano and Spohn, 2012; Spohn and Fornango, 2009; Ortiz and Spohn, 2014).Footnote 54 They revealed, among other things, that significant inter-prosecutor disparity exists in the likelihood of substantial assistance departures and in the criteria that prosecutors use in deciding whether to file a motion for a substantial assistance departure. One study (Stacey and Spohn, 2006) examined the effect of dependent children on guideline departures in federal court and found that women with children were more likely to receive a substantial assistance departure than women without children. There were no differences between men with children and men without. The most recent of these studies explored the factors that affect prosecutors’ decisions to file motions for substantial assistance departures for recidivist offenders who were convicted of drug offense in federal courts. The study showed that employment status and drug use predicted the likelihood of a recommended departure, and, more importantly, that the effects of these factors were conditioned by the defendant’s sex and race/ethnicity (Ortiz and Spohn, 2014).
State laws (U.S.A.)
Many American states make cooperation or assistance with the state a legitimate reason for a departure from a mandatory minimum sentence. In Florida, for example, the state attorney can request the court to reduce or suspend a sentence of any person who is convicted of drug trafficking when the person provides substantial assistance in the identification, arrest, or conviction of any other person engaged in trafficking in controlled substances (pursuant sometimes to a “Substantial Assistance Contract”). A downward departure from the lowest permissible sentence (as calculated according to the total sentence points pursuant to a sentence calculation formula)Footnote 55 is prohibited unless there are circumstances or factors that reasonably justify the downward departure. These factors are quite numerous, but they ostensibly include having entered into a legitimate and non-coerced plea agreement or cooperation with the state to resolve the current offence or any other offence.Footnote 56
In Pennsylvania, the decision to pursue most mandatory minimum penalties belongs solely to the prosecutors. In that context, the mandatory minimum penalties effectively substitute prosecutorial discretion to judicial discretion. After deciding to charge an offence that is eligible for a mandatory minimum penalty, the prosecutors decide whether to move for the application of the mandatory penalty. If the prosecutors decide not to pursue the mandatory minimum sentence, the offenders are sentenced pursuant to State’s sentencing guidelines which normally call for penalties that are lower than the mandatory minimum sentences. If the prosecutors move for the application of the mandatory minimum sentence, the court must sentence accordinglyFootnote 57 A study of prosecutors’ decisions to apply a mandatory minimum among eligible offenders sentenced for drug crimes or as repeat, “three-strike” offenders in that State found that these decisions were significantly affected by the type and characteristics of the offences and guidelines sentencing recommendations, prior record, mode of conviction, and gender (Ulmer et al., 2007).
In Victoria, since 2013, the law imposing mandatory minimum penalties for “gross violent offences” includes a list of “special reasons” for not applying the mandatory minimum provisions.Footnote 58 One of these special reasons can be that the offender has assisted or has given an undertaking to assist, after sentencing, law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of an offence.
4. Relief in view of mitigating factors
The legislator is sometimes prepared to consider exceptions to the automatic application of a mandatory sentence when “good reasons” exist to do so, or there are some important mitigating circumstances requiring consideration. In some cases, the specific “mitigating circumstances” that can be considered by the courts are specifically spelled out. The following are five examples of that approach: South Australia, Victoria, the so-called “safety valve” provisions of the American federal criminal law, the State of Montana, and Sweden.
South Australia – Good reason for reducing the minimum penalty
In South Australia, under s. 17 of the Criminal Law Sentencing Act 1988, the courts have the power to reduce a penalty below the minimum stated by the relevant Act where good reason exists to do so:Footnote 59
“17—Reduction of minimum penalty
Where a special Act fixes a minimum penalty in respect of an offence and the court, having regard to—
- the character, antecedents, age or physical or mental condition of the defendant; or
- the fact that the offence was trifling; or
- any other extenuating circumstances,
is of the opinion that good reason exists for reducing the penalty below the minimum, the court may so reduce the penalty.”Footnote 60
Section 21 of the Criminal Law Sentencing Act 1988 further specifies that in cases where an offender is liable to imprisonment for life, a court may nevertheless impose a sentence of imprisonment for a specified term.
Section 21 provides that:
- “ If by any provision of an Act an offender is made liable to imprisonment for life, a court may nevertheless impose a sentence of imprisonment for a specified term.
- If by any provision of an Act or statutory rule an offender is made liable to imprisonment for a specified term, a court may nevertheless impose a sentence of imprisonment for a lesser term.
- If by any provision of an Act or statutory rule an offender is made liable to a fine of a specified amount, a court may nevertheless impose a fine of a lesser amount.
- The power conferred on a court by this section is not limited by any other provision of this Part.
- This section does not limit any discretion that the court has, apart from this section, in relation to the imposition of penalties.”
It may be argued that these particular provisions of the sentencing law are in effect transforming mandatory minimum penalties into presumptive penalties.
In Victoria, since 2013, the law imposing mandatory minimum penalties for “gross violent offences” includes a list of “special reasons” for not applying the mandatory minimum provisions.Footnote 61 Among these reasons are the following: (1) the offender is below the age of 21 and above the age of 18 and having a psychosocial immaturity that has resulted in a diminished ability to regulate their behaviour in comparison with the norm for persons of that age; and, (2) the offender proves on the balance of probabilities that (i) at the time of the commission of the offence, he or she had impaired mental functioning that is causally linked to the commission of the offence and substantially reduces the offender's culpability, or (ii) he or she has impaired mental functioning that would result in the offender being subject to significantly more than the ordinary burden or risks of imprisonment.
Federal criminal law USA – 18 USC §3553(f)
The federal criminal law in the United States foresees some limitations on the applicability of statutory minimum sentences in certain cases involving offences under sections 401, 404, or 406 of the Controlled Substances ActFootnote 62 or sections 1010 or 1013 of the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act.Footnote 63 These are often referred to as “safety valve” provisions. In such instances, the court is to impose a sentence pursuant to the guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission without regard to any statutory minimum sentence, if the court finds at sentencing, after the Government has been afforded the opportunity to make a recommendation, that:
- “ the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
- the defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
- the offence did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
- the defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act; and
- not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.”Footnote 64
The judge must still consult and consider the guidelines in deciding the sentence to impose, as well as provide a statement of reasons.Footnote 65 As was the case for 18 USC 3553(e) referred to above, collaboration with the government is a requirement.
The Sentencing Commission 2014 guidelines state that the characteristic of family ties and responsibilities is “not ordinarily relevant” and should not be a factor in sentencing decisions.Footnote 66 Some observers have argued that the Guidelines should be amended to indicate that courts can consider family ties and responsibilities when determining a sentence (Anderson, 2015).
The “safety valve” provisions are used quite extensively in drug offence cases. Their impact is not yet fully understood, but it is quite clear that mandatory minimum sentences together with these provisions do not affect sentence outcomes in a uniform manner across federal districts. Hartley, studying decision making practices of judges for narcotic violations in four districts in the southwestern United States, found that “safety valve” provisions do not decrease defendants’ sentence significantly in all districts (Hartley, 2008: 449).
In a survey of prosecutors and defence attorneys conducted for the United States Sentencing Commission, most defence attorneys reported that the safety valve provisions worked well for qualifying offenders (USSC, 2011: 118).Footnote 67 The Commission recommended that Congress consider establishing a statutory “safety valve” mechanism similar to the one available for certain drug trafficking offenders for low-level, non-violent offenders convicted of other offences carrying mandatory minimum penalties (USSC, 2011: 346). Proposed legislation is currently being considered that would create a broad “safety valve” that would apply to all federal crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. If passed, the Justice Safety Valve ActFootnote 68 would allow judges to sentence federal offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence whenever that minimum term does not fulfill the goals of punishment and other sentencing criteria listed at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
The Montana Code (Title 46 – Criminal Procedure) creates several potential reliefs from the application of various mandatory minimum sentences (and mandatory life sentences) based on a number of mitigating factors. In addition to being 18 at the time of committing the offence, the mitigating factors recognized by the law are:
- Mental capacity: “the offender's mental capacity, at the time of the commission of the offense for which the offender is to be sentenced, was significantly impaired, although not so impaired as to constitute a defense to the prosecution. However, a voluntarily induced intoxicated or drugged condition may not be considered an impairment for the purposes of this subsection.”
- Offence committed under duress: “the offender, at the time of the commission of the offense for which the offender is to be sentenced, was acting under unusual and substantial duress, although not such duress as would constitute a defense to the prosecution.”
- Minor role in the crime: “the offender was an accomplice, the conduct constituting the offense was principally the conduct of another, and the offender's participation was relatively minor.”
- No serious bodily injury: “in a case in which the threat of bodily injury or actual infliction of bodily injury is an actual element of the crime, no serious bodily injury was inflicted on the victim unless a weapon was used in the commission of the offense.”Footnote 69
Sweden – Special circumstances
The Swedish Penal Code provides the penalty for specified crimes, sometimes expressed also as a minimum sentence. For example, the penalty for rape is imprisonment for at least two and at most six years and, if the crime is gross, the penalty is imprisonment for at least four and at most ten years.Footnote 70 For arson, the penalty is imprisonment for at least two and at most eight years, but in the case of gross arson, it is imprisonment for a term of at least six and at most ten years.Footnote 71
Notwithstanding the specified minimum penalties stipulated in the Code, the court is required to give reasonable consideration to a number of factors and circumstances and impose a lesser sentence than that prescribed for the crime:
“In determining the appropriate punishment, the court shall, besides the penal value of the crime, give reasonable consideration to:
- whether the accused has suffered severe bodily harm as a result of the crime,
- whether the accused to the best of his ability has attempted to prevent, remedy or limit the harmful consequences of the crime,
- whether the accused gave himself up,
- whether the accused would suffer harm through expulsion by reason of the crime from the Realm,
- whether the accused, as a result of the crime, has suffered, or there is good reason to suppose that he will suffer, dismissal from, or termination of, employment, or will encounter any other obstacle or special difficulty in the pursuit of his occupation or business,
- whether the accused, in consequence of advanced age or ill health, would suffer unreasonable hardship by a punishment imposed in accordance with the penal value of the crime,
- . whether, having regard to the nature of the crime, an unusually long time has elapsed since its commission or
- whether there exists any other circumstance that calls for a lesser punishment than that warranted by the penal value of the crime.
If any circumstance covered by the first paragraph exists, the court may, if there are special grounds for so doing, impose a less severe punishment than that prescribed for the crime.”Footnote 72
5. Relief available in exceptional or substantial and compelling circumstances
Some legislators have opted for the much stricter concepts of “exceptional circumstances” or “substantial and compelling circumstances” as a basis for justifying a deviation from a prescribed minimum penalty. These concepts are meant to indicate that the courts should apply the mandatory penalties in the vast majority of cases and to deviate from them only in exceptional cases. Over the years, the courts have had to provide further guidance on how these concepts were to be interpreted. The following briefly describes the experience in that regard of the Northern Territories (Australia), Victoria (Australia), the United Kingdom, and South Africa. In the latter instance, after the exceptions were found to have been used quite extensively in rape cases, the legislator eventually amended the legislation to specifically exclude certain factors from being considered as “substantial and compelling circumstances” in rape cases.
Northern Territories – Exceptional circumstances
In the Northern Territories, Australia, some reliefs from mandatory sentencing provisions have been created to apply in “exceptional circumstances.” The “exceptional circumstances” exception was introduced in June 1999Footnote 73 but it only applied to a single first adult property offence and is limited in its applicability because four criteria have to be fulfilled, namely:
- the offence must have been of a trivial nature;
- the offender must have made reasonable efforts to make full restitution;
- the offender must be of otherwise good character with mitigating circumstances (which do not include intoxication) which reduce the extent to which the offender is to blame;
- the offender must have cooperated with law enforcement agencies.
In 2013, the government replaced the existing scheme with a new minimum sentencing scheme for violent offencesFootnote 74. The new scheme has five levels of violent offences with different levels of minimum penalties applying to each of the top three levels. There are exemptions from the minimum levels of imprisonment if there are “exceptional circumstances” (Roth, 2014:10).Footnote 75
Victoria – Special reasons and substantial and compelling circumstances
Since 2013, Victorian law includes mandatory terms of imprisonment (with a minimum non-parole period of four years) for adults committing the offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to a person in circumstances of gross violence”.Footnote 76 Before establishing a minimum penalty, the Government consulted the Sentencing Advisory Council (Victoria) which had essentially adopted in 2008 a position against mandatory minimum penalties. The Council was specifically asked to provide advice, among other things, on how the exceptional circumstances in which a court may impose a non-parole period of less than the statutory minimum sentence should best be specified. The Council explained that: “(i)n light of the rationale of high culpability implicit in the gross violence elements of the new severe injury offences, the Council considered that exceptions to the imposition of a statutory minimum sentence should be based on circumstances that significantly diminish an offender’s culpability or that can be justified for public policy reasons” (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2011: 10). It sought to define a merits-based approach to determining what ought to be “exceptional”, rather than an interpretation based on rarity or infrequency. The Council also recommended that the phrase “special reasons” be used to avoid confusion with other tests in Victorian law that use the phrase “exceptional circumstances” (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2011). Finally, the Council recommended that a non-exhaustive list of special reasons be specified in the law. It explained that:
“(…) as a general statement test may be susceptible to broad interpretation and the clear policy objective is to tightly define exemptions from the statutory minimum sentences, the legislation should provide a list of special reasons. The list of special reasons should comprise those circumstances that are foreseeable and commonly regarded as appropriate exemptions on the basis of the rationales of diminished culpability and public policy.” (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2011: 10).
The Council argued that such a list would provide guidance to a court as to the kinds of circumstances that ought to warrant exemption from the statutory minimum sentence and the rationale behind such exemptions. However, the mere existence of one of the listed special reasons in a case should not automatically warrant exemption from the statutory minimum sentences. Instead, a court must consider whether it is also in the interests of justice to do so (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2011).
The new legislation adopted in 2013 included a list of “special reasons” for not applying the mandatory minimum provisions. They were:
- the offender has assisted or has given an undertaking to assist, after sentencing, law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of an offence;
- the offender is below the age of 21 and above the age of 18 and having a psychosocial immaturity that has resulted in a diminished ability to regulate their behaviour in comparison with the norm for persons of that age;
- the offender proves on the balance of probabilities that; (i) at the time of the commission of the offence, he or she had impaired mental functioning that is causally linked to the commission of the offence and substantially reduces the offender's culpability; or (ii) he or she has impaired mental functioning that would result in the offender being subject to significantly more than the ordinary burden or risks of imprisonment;
- the court proposes to make a hospital security order or a residential treatment order in respect of the offender;
- there are substantial and compelling circumstances that justify making a finding that a special reason exists.Footnote 77
When a court makes such a finding, it must state in writing the special reason and cause that reason to be entered in the records of the court.Footnote 78
United Kingdom – Exceptional Circumstances
In England and Wales, the concept of “exceptional circumstances” as the basis of an exception to the application of mandatory minimum sentences was introduced as s. 51A of the Firearms Act 1968 by s. 287 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Act provided for a five year minimum custodial sentence for illegal possession and distribution of prohibited firearms, but also provided that a court could impose a lesser sentence if the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify its not doing so (s. 287(2)). The same exception was included in relation to the minimum penalty applicable to the new firearms offence created in 2006, by s. 28 (using someone to mind a dangerous weapon) of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006.Footnote 79
The meaning of “exceptional circumstances” was considered in R v Rehman and Wood.Footnote 80 The Court of Appeal offered the following guidance:
- Parliament has signalled that it was important that deterrent sentences be imposed. The latter are sentences that “pay less attention to the personal circumstances of the offender and focus primarily upon the need for the courts to convey a message that an offender can expect to be dealt with more severely so as to deter others than he would be were it only his personal wrongdoing which the court had to consider” (para. 4).
- The policy was to treat the specified offences as requiring a minimum term of imprisonment unless there were exceptional circumstances, not necessarily because the offender would be a danger in the future, but to send out a deterrent message (para. 12)
- In determining whether the case involved ‘exceptional circumstances’, it is necessary to look at the case as a whole. “It is not appropriate to look at each circumstance separately and to conclude that it does not amount to an exceptional circumstance” (para. 11).
- Sometimes there may be “one single striking, which relates to either the offence or the offender’ which causes the case to fall within the requirements of exceptional circumstances”, but in other cases it would be the collective impact of all the relevant circumstances (para. 11).
- The mandatory minimum penalty is capable of being arbitrary and causing considerable injustice, especially bearing in mind that possession of a prohibited firearm is an absolute offence and that “an offender may commit the offence without even realizing that he has done so” (para. 12). It is to be noted, that “if an offender has no idea that he is doing anything wrong, a deterrent sentence will have no deterrent effect upon him” (para. 14).
- Reading the section in light of the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998, the circumstances will be ‘exceptional’ if it would mean that to impose the minimum sentence would result in an arbitrary and disproportionate sentence (para. 14).
- It is clear that it is the opinion of the court that is critical as to what exceptional circumstances are. Unless the judge is clearly wrong in identifying exceptional circumstances when they did not exist, or clearly wrong in not identifying them when they do exist, the Court of Appeal will not readily interfere (para. 14).
In other cases, the Court of Appeal further specified that s. 51A(2) does not allow for a reduction of the minimum term on account of a guilty plea.Footnote 81 Also, where exceptional circumstances are found, the minimum term should be kept as a starting point.Footnote 82
The following are a few examples of cases where the court have recognized the existence of “exceptional circumstances”: a situation where the consequence of a long imprisonment would be particularly severe because of the offender’s serious physical disabilities;Footnote 83 a situation where the sole prohibited firearm involved in the possession offence had been acquired before the possession of such a firearm became unlawful;Footnote 84 or, a situation where the offender, someone without a criminal record, kept some prohibited firearms ‘dumped’ on his premises, locked in a secure cabinet, intending to hand them to the police if there was a gun amnesty.Footnote 85 However, leaving a firearm in insecure bedsit after deciding not to use it to commit suicide was held not to be “exceptional.”Footnote 86
South Africa – Substantial and compelling circumstances
In South Africa, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1997 introduced mandatory minimum penalties for certain serious offences, as well as escalating minimum penalties when an offender is found guilty of certain offences for a second or a third time. The law recognizes that a deviation from a mandatory minimum sentence is possible when the court is satisfied that substantial and compelling circumstances exist which justify the imposition of a lesser sentence than the sentence prescribed. Ten years later, the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Amendment Act, 2007 amended the law to specify that, in the case of a rape, the complainant’s previous sexual history, an accused person’s cultural or religious beliefs about rape, or any relationship between the accused person and the complainant prior to the offence being committed, do not constitute substantial and compelling circumstances justifying the imposition of a lesser sentence.
Sections 51 and 53 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1997 (as amendedFootnote 87) provide:
“51. Minimum sentences for certain serious offences.
- (3) (a) If any court referred to in subsection (1) or (2) is satisfied that substantial and compelling circumstances exist which justify the imposition of a lesser sentence than the sentence prescribed in those subsections, it shall enter those circumstances on the record of the proceedings and may thereupon impose such lesser sentence.
- (aA) When imposing a sentence in respect of the offence of rape the following shall not constitute substantial and compelling circumstances justifying the imposition of a lesser sentence:
- The complainant’s previous sexual history;
- an accused person’s cultural or religious beliefs about rape; or
- any relationship between the accused person and the complainant prior to the offence being committed.
- (5) (a) Subject to paragraph (b), the operation of a sentence imposed in terms of this section shall not be suspended as contemplated in section 297(4) of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977 (Act No. 51 of 1977).
- (b) If a sentence is imposed in terms of subsection (2)(c), not more than half of that sentence may be suspended as contemplated in section 297(4) of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977 (Act No. 51 of 1977).
- (6) This section does not apply in respect of a person who was under the age of—
(a) 16 years at the time of the commission of an offence contemplated in subsection (1) or (2)(a) or (b); or
(b) 18 years at the time of the commission of an offence contemplated in subsection (2)(c).
- (7) If in the application of this section the age of an accused person is placed in issue, the onus shall be on the State to prove the age of the person beyond reasonable doubt.
The concept of “substantial and compelling circumstances” has been the object of judicial interpretation. In S v Mofokeng and Another, the judge held that for substantial and compelling circumstances to be found, “the facts of the particular case must present some circumstance that is so exceptional in nature, and that so obviously exposes the injustice of statutorily prescribed sentence in the particular case, that it can rightly be described as ‘compelling’ the conclusion that the imposition of a lesser sentence than that prescribed by Parliament is justified.”Footnote 88
Most notably, in S v Malgas, the court held, at the outset, that the mandatory sentences should ordinarily be imposed and that, when considering sentence, the emphasis was to be shifted to the objective gravity of the type of crime and the public’s need for effective sanctions against it.Footnote 89 The Court held that the imposition of the prescribed sentence need not amount to a “shocking injustice” before a departure is justified.Footnote 90 With respect to what may constitute “substantial and compelling circumstances”, the Court emphasized the following:
“Moreover, those circumstances had to be substantial and compelling. Whatever nuances of meaning may lurk in those words, their central thrust seems obvious. The specified sentences were not to be departed from lightly and for flimsy reasons which could not withstand scrutiny. Speculative hypotheses favourable to the offender, maudlin sympathy, aversion to imprisoning first offenders, personal doubts as to the efficacy of the policy implicit in the amending legislation, and like considerations were equally obviously not intended to qualify as substantial and compelling circumstances. Nor were marginal differences in the personal circumstances or degrees of participation of co-offenders which, but for the provisions, might have justified differentiating between them.”Footnote 91
The Court unanimously decided that the “ultimate cumulative impact” of all the factors usually considered in sentencing (the traditional mitigating and aggravating factors) must be weighed up to decide whether a departure from the prescribed period is justified. “Substantial and compelling circumstances” may arise from a number of factors considered together even if, taken one by one, these factors may not be exceptional. If the sentencing court considers all the circumstances and is satisfied that the prescribed sentence would be unjust, as it would be “disproportionate to the crime, the criminal and the needs of society”, the court may impose a lesser sentence (O’Donovan and Redpath, 2006: 14).
The court added:
“The greater the sense of unease a court feels about the imposition of a prescribed sentence, the greater its anxiety will be that it may be perpetrating an injustice. Once a court reaches the point where unease has hardened into a conviction that an injustice will be done, that can only be because it is satisfied that the circumstances of the particular case render the prescribed sentence unjust or, as some might prefer to put it, disproportionate to the crime, the criminal and the legitimate needs of society. If that is the result of a consideration of the circumstances, the court is entitled to characterise them as substantial and compelling and such as to justify the imposition of a lesser sentence.”Footnote 92
The Court also offered the following guidance for applying mandatory minimum sentences:
- “Section 51 has limited but not eliminated the courts’ discretion in imposing sentence in respect of offences referred to in Part 1 of Schedule 2 (or imprisonment for other specified periods for offences listed in other parts of Schedule 2).
- Courts are required to approach the imposition of sentence conscious that the legislature has ordained life imprisonment (or the particular prescribed period of imprisonment) as the sentence that should ordinarily and in the absence of weighty justification be imposed for the listed crimes in the specified circumstances.
- Unless there are, and can be seen to be, truly convincing reasons for a different response, the crimes in question are therefore required to elicit a severe, standardised and consistent response from the courts.
- The specified sentences are not to be departed from lightly and for flimsy reasons. Speculative hypotheses favourable to the offender, undue sympathy, aversion to imprisoning first offenders, personal doubts as to the efficacy of the policy underlying the legislation, and marginal differences in personal circumstances or degrees of participation between co-offenders are to be excluded.
- The legislature has however deliberately left it to the courts to decide whether the circumstances of any particular case call for a departure from the prescribed sentence. While the emphasis has shifted to the objective gravity of the type of crime and the need for effective sanctions against it, this does not mean that all other considerations are to be ignored.
- All factors (other than those set out in D above) traditionally taken into account in sentencing (whether or not they diminish moral guilt) thus continue to play a role; none is excluded at the outset from consideration in the sentencing process.
- The ultimate impact of all the circumstances relevant to sentencing must be measured against the composite yardstick (“substantial and compelling”) and must be such as cumulatively justify a departure from the standardised response that the legislature has ordained.
- In applying the statutory provisions, it is inappropriately constricting to use the concepts developed in dealing with appeals against sentence as the sole criterion.
- If the sentencing court on consideration of the circumstances of the particular case is satisfied that they render the prescribed sentence unjust in that it would be disproportionate to the crime, the criminal and the needs of society, so that an injustice would be done by imposing that sentence, it is entitled to impose a lesser sentence.
- In so doing, account must be taken of the fact that crime of that particular kind has been singled out for severe punishment and that the sentence to be imposed in lieu of the prescribed sentence should be assessed paying due regard to the bench mark which the legislature has provided.”Footnote 93
We may note also that the Constitutional Court of South Africa rejected a challenge to the constitutional validity of these provisions in Buzani Dodo v The State.Footnote 94
In practice, the “substantial and compelling circumstances” argument has been invoked regularly to justify a departure from the prescribed minimum sentences (Rudmand, 2006). Some have argued that the exception clauses were used too frequently and may have defeated the purpose of the mandatory minimum sentences.Footnote 95
Because of the possibility of invoking “substantial and compelling circumstances”, it was argued that the limiting of judicial discretion in respect of certain rape cases by the Act did not rid such sentencing of outdated myths and stereotypical assumptions about rape. The provisions may have led courts to conduct a grading exercise in rape cases (O’Sullivan, 2006). The Supreme Court of Appeal may have added some ambiguity in defining the circumstances that can justify a departure from the mandatory minimum sentence for rape. In S v Abrahams, it stated that “some rapes are worse than others and the life sentence ordained by the Legislature should be reserved for cases devoid of substantial factors compelling the conclusion that such a sentence is inappropriate and unjust.”Footnote 96 In S v Mahomotsa, the Court referring to rape cases noted that “they will all be serious but some will be more serious than others and, subject to the caveat that follows, it is only right that the differences in seriousness should receive recognition when it comes to the meting out of punishment.”Footnote 97
In S v. Mvamvu the Supreme Court of Appeal considered an appeal by the State of a five year prison sentence imposed on the accused for the abduction and repeated rape and assault of his estranged customary law wife, who had obtained a domestic violence protection order against him.Footnote 98 The Court found the existence of the customary law marriage, Mvamvu’s honest belief that he had a right to conjugal benefits and the fact that he grew up and lived in a world of his own shaped by customary norms and practices, to be mitigating factors.Footnote 99
These and other events eventually led to the inclusion through the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Amendment Act, 2007 of the new s.3(aA) stipulating what shall not constitute substantial and compelling circumstances when the offender is convicted for the offence of rape.
There is some evidence that the mandatory minimum penalties have exacerbated the problem of prison overcrowding in South Africa and have increased court costs and delays, but their full impact has not been evaluated (O’Donovan and Redpath, 2006; Sloth-Nielsen and Ehlers, 2005). There does not appear to be any data available on the impact of the use of the “exceptional circumstances” provisions of the law.
6. Relief in the “interest of justice” or to avoid an “unjust” sentence
It can obviously be argued that, when the law specifies the kind of mitigating or exceptional circumstances that may justify a departure from mandatory minimum penalties, it essentially does so in order to avoid some unjust sentencing outcomes.Footnote 100 Nevertheless, in some jurisdictions, the legislator has relied on the concept of “unjust sentences” to create specific exceptions to the application on mandatory penalties. This approach was used in New Zealand, England and Wales, and Scotland.
New Zealand – Exception when a sentence would be “manifestly unjust”
New Zealand offers some interesting examples of exceptions to the application of mandatory minimum penalties.Footnote 101 The Sentencing Act 2002 had introduced minimum finite sentences for murder and minimum non-parole periods which applied unless they were considered by the court to be “manifestly unfair”. The Act had also imposed minimum penalties in cases of serious offending where the culpability of the offender has been high and aggravating factors have been present. However, as mentioned before, New Zealand later adopted a sentence escalation regime that amounts to a form of mandatory minimum sentencing regime. The Sentencing and Parole Act 2010 also replaced the previous mandatory life imprisonment penalty for murder with more flexible sentencing provisions.Footnote 102 With these amendments, life imprisonment became the maximum penalty for murder rather than the mandatory penalty but with a strong presumption in favour of its use.Footnote 103 A finite sentence of imprisonment, however, is only available for murder if a life sentence would be "manifestly unjust". The intent was ostensibly to ensure that finite penalties would only apply in exceptional cases such as mercy killings, failed suicide pacts and situations involving battered defendants, where life imprisonment would be “manifestly unjust” on the facts (Chhana et al., 2004: 13). The new section 102 of the Sentencing Act 2002 reads as follows:
“102 Presumption in favour of life imprisonment for murder
- An offender who is convicted of murder must be sentenced to imprisonment for life unless, given the circumstances of the offence and the offender, a sentence of imprisonment for life would be manifestly unjust.
- If a court does not impose a sentence of imprisonment for life on an offender convicted of murder, it must give written reasons for not doing so. (…)”Footnote 104
When the courts impose a life sentence for murder, they must also specify a minimum period of imprisonment or imprisonment without parole of no less than ten (10) years and must be the minimum that the court considers necessary to satisfy the purposes of the sentence:
“103 Imposition of minimum period of imprisonment or imprisonment without parole
- (2) The minimum term of imprisonment ordered may not be less than 10 years, and must be the minimum term of imprisonment that the court considers necessary to satisfy all or any of the following purposes:
- holding the offender accountable for the harm done to the victim and the community by the offending:
- denouncing the conduct in which the offender was involved:
- deterring the offender or other persons from committing the same or a similar offence:
- protecting the community from the offender.
- (2A) If the court that sentences an offender convicted of murder to imprisonment for life is satisfied that no minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy 1 or more of the purposes stated in subsection (2), the court may order that the offender serve the sentence without parole.
- (2B) The court may not make an order under subsection (2A) unless the offender was 18 years of age.”Footnote 105
When some aggravating circumstances accompany the murder, the court is required to impose a minimum period of imprisonment or imprisonment without parole of no less than seventeen (17) years, unless it is satisfied that it would be manifestly unjust to do so:
“104 Imposition of minimum period of imprisonment of 17 years or more
(1) The court must make an order under section 103 imposing a minimum period of imprisonment of at least 17 years in the following circumstances, unless it is satisfied that it would be manifestly unjust to do so:
- (a) if the murder was committed in an attempt to avoid the detection, prosecution, or conviction of any person for any offence or in any other way to attempt to subvert the course of justice; or
- (b) if the murder involved calculated or lengthy planning, including making an arrangement under which money or anything of value passes (or is intended to pass) from one person to another; or
- (c) if the murder involved the unlawful entry into, or unlawful presence in, a dwelling place; or
- (d) if the murder was committed in the course of another serious offence; or
- (e) if the murder was committed with a high level of brutality, cruelty, depravity, or callousness; or
- (ea) if the murder was committed as part of a terrorist act (as defined in section 5(1) of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002); or
- (f) if the deceased was a constable or a prison officer acting in the course of his or her duty; or
- (g) if the deceased was particularly vulnerable because of his or her age, health, or because of any other factor; or
- (h) if the offender has been convicted of 2 or more counts of murder, whether or not arising from the same circumstances; or
- (i) in any other exceptional circumstances.”
Finally, when the murder is a “stage 2 or stage 3 offence” (second or third “strike” – see below), the court must sentence the offender to a life sentence without parole, or a minimum period of imprisonment of not less than 20 years unless, again, it would be manifestly unjust to do so.Footnote 106
The Sentencing and Parole Act 2010 also introduced a “three strikes” sentencing regime (or, more exactly, a sentence escalation regime) for certain qualifying offences. There are 40 qualifying offences comprising all major violent and sexual offences with a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment or more, including murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, sexual violation, abduction, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. In that three-stage regime, courts are required to warn qualifying offenders and then increase penalties for subsequent offences. Most importantly, on a “third strike”, the courts are to impose the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed for that offence unless that would be “manifestly unjust”.
When one of the qualifying offences is committed, a first warning is to be issued to any offender aged 18 or over at the time of the offence and who does not have any previous warnings. The first “strike” warning stays on the offender’s record (unless his or her conviction is quashed by an appellate court). Should this offender be subsequently convicted of committing another qualifying offence, he or she is to receive a final warning and, if sentenced to imprisonment, will serve that sentence in full without the possibility of parole. On conviction of a third qualifying offence the court must impose the maximum penalty for the offence. The court must also order that the sentence be served without parole, unless the court considers that would be manifestly unjust. If there are some exceptional circumstances associated with the offence or the offender, the judge can decide that it would be “manifestly unjust” or extremely unfair to order that the sentence be served without parole.
“86D Stage-3 offences other than murder: offender sentenced to maximum term of imprisonment
- (1) Despite any other enactment,—
- a defendant who is committed for trial for a stage-3 offence must be committed to the High Court for that trial;
- no court other than the High Court, or the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court on an appeal, may sentence an offender for a stage-3 offence.
- (2) Despite any other enactment, if, on any occasion, an offender is convicted of 1 or more stage-3 offences other than murder, the High Court must sentence the offender to the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed for each offence.
- (3) When the court sentences the offender under subsection (2), the court must order that the offender serve the sentence without parole unless the court is satisfied that, given the circumstances of the offence and the offender, it would be manifestly unjust to make the order.
- (4) Despite subsection (3), if the court sentences the offender for manslaughter, the court must order that the offender serve a minimum period of imprisonment of not less than 20 years unless the court considers that, given the circumstances of the offence and the offender, a minimum period of that duration would be manifestly unjust, in which case the court must order that the offender serve a minimum period of imprisonment of not less than 10 years.
- (5) If the court does not make an order under subsection (3) or, where subsection (4) applies, does not order a minimum period of not less than 20 years under subsection (4), the court must give written reasons for not doing so.
- (6) If the court imposes a sentence under subsection (2), any other sentence of imprisonment imposed on the same occasion (whether for a stage-3 offence or for any other kind of offence) must be imposed concurrently.
- (7) Despite subsection (2), this section does not preclude the court from imposing, under section 87, a sentence of preventive detention on the offender, and if the court imposes such a sentence on the offender,—
- subsections (2) to (5) do not apply; and
- the minimum period of imprisonment that the court imposes on the offender under section 89(1) must not be less than the term of imprisonment that the court would have imposed under subsection (2), unless the court is satisfied that, given the circumstances of the offence and the offender, the imposition of that minimum period would be manifestly unjust.
- (8) If, in reliance on subsection (7)(b), the court imposes a minimum period of imprisonment that is less than the term of imprisonment that the court would have imposed under subsection (2), the court must give written reasons for doing so.”
The exception can also apply in cases where the court is sentencing an offender to preventive detention. Under s. 89 of the Sentencing Act 2002, when a court sentences an offender to preventive detention, it must also order that the offender serve a minimum period of imprisonment, which in no case may be less than 5 years. The minimum period of imprisonment must be the longer of: (a) the minimum period of imprisonment required to reflect the gravity of the offence; or, (b) the minimum period of imprisonment required for the purposes of the safety of the community in the light of the offender’s age and the risk posed by the offender to that safety at the time of sentencing.
Section 86D (7) and (8) of the Sentencing and Parole Reform Act 2010 specifies that the minimum period of preventive imprisonment that the Court imposes on the offender under section 89(1) must not be less than the term of imprisonment that the Court would have imposed under subsection (2), unless the Court is satisfied that, given the circumstances of the offence and the offender, the imposition of that minimum period would be manifestly unjust.
In all of the relevant instances, the courts must give written reasons for deviating from the expected minimum penalty. The threshold for deviating from the prescribed minimum penalties, as set by the “manifestly unjust” criterion, is quite high so as to apply only to very unusual circumstances. Yet, the threshold is not very specific, so as to allow the courts to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
Since the new regime was adopted, the courts have had several opportunities to explain how the “manifestly unjust” concept should be interpreted. The courts have held that it is a high threshold. What amounts to “manifestly unjust” depends on the particular facts of the case. In R v O'Brien the court commented that: “‘Unjust’ can only mean that in the context of a particular murder and a particular offender, the normal sentence of life imprisonment runs counter to both a Judge's perception of a lawfully just result and also offends against the community's innate sense of justice. ‘Manifestly’ means that injustice must be patently clear or obvious." Footnote 107
With respect to the court’s discretion to deviate from the “strong presumption” that a sentence of life imprisonment must be imposed (s. 102), the courts have clarified that the assessment of manifest injustice is a conclusion likely to be reached in exceptional cases only and the scope to account for the young age of the offender is greatly limited.Footnote 108
In R v O'Brien the Court of Appeal noted that: “There may be cases where the circumstances of a murder may not be so warranting denunciation and the mental or intellectual impairment of the offender may be so mitigating of moral culpability that, absent issues of further risk to public safety, it would be manifestly unjust to impose a sentence of life imprisonment.”Footnote 109 However, it agreed with the court of first instance and held that in the context of a criminally motivated and brutal attack on a vulnerable victim, a mild intellectual impairment, even when coupled with youth, was not sufficient to displace the presumption.Footnote 110
England and Wales – Exception when a minimum penalty would be unjust
The relief was introduced in the United Kingdom in a proposed new law at the last minute, by the House of Lords to allow judges to have regard to specific circumstances relating to either the offender or the offence when considering the appropriateness of imposing the minimum sentence. Judges were also directed to take into account any specific circumstances that would render the prescribed minimum penalty “unjust in all the circumstances”.
Section 109 of the Power of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 imposed a mandatory life sentence in the cases of offenders, aged 18 or over, convicted of a second serious offence,
“unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to either of the offences or to the offender which justify its not doing so” (s. 109 (2)). In such cases, the court must state in open court that it is of that opinion and specify the exceptional circumstances that were considered (s. 109(3)). The list of serious offences qualifying under these dispositions is a long one (culpable homicide, conspiracy to commit murder, rape, aggravated assaults, possession of firearms, use of firearms to resist arrest, etc.).
Section 110 of the same Act also established a seven year minimum imprisonment penalty for a third “class A drug offence” and s. 111 provided a minimum penalty of three years of imprisonment for a third conviction for burglary. In both cases, the law also left the door open and provided an exception allowing the courts to deviate from these penalties “where the court is of the opinion that there are particular circumstances which: (a) relate to any of the offences or to the offender; and, (b) would make it unjust to do so in all the circumstances” (s. 110 (2) and s. 111(2)). As was the case for s. 109, where the courts do not impose the minimum sentence, they must state in open court that they are of that opinion and what the particular circumstances are.
In McInerney, the Court of Appeal expressed the view that the exemption created in s. 111(2) in respect of domestic burglary gives the sentencing judge a fairly substantial degree of discretion as to the categories of situations where the presumption can be rebutted.Footnote 111 The Court gave two examples of situations where a mandatory sentence of imprisonment for three years may be unjust: when two offences were committed before the offender became 16, when two of the offences were committed many years earlier than the third offence, or when an offender has made real efforts to reform or conquer his drug addiction, but some personal tragedy triggers the third offence.
With respect to s. 110 (minimum sentences for drug offences), there are similar examples of cases where the courts have determined that imposing the minimum penalty would be unjust: for example, when an offender’s previous convictions had occurred a number of years before the current offence;Footnote 112 or when the previous offences only involved supplying small amounts of drugs to a group of friends.Footnote 113
Scotland – Exceptions in the interest of justice
Section 205B of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 provides a mandatory minimum penalty for a third conviction of certain offences related to drug trafficking (Class A drug trafficking offences). However, an exemption is created when the court “is of the opinion that there are specific circumstances which: (a) relate to any of the offences or to the offender; and (b) would make that sentence unjust (s. 205B(3)).
7. Relief to allow for the treatment of the offender
The encouragement of diversionary drug courts in the 2013 U.S. Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative could signal the broader use of relief from mandatory minimum penalties to allow for the treatment of offenders.
In the State of Montana, Section 46-18-222 of the Montana Code (Title 46 – Criminal Procedure) creates a possible relief from the application of very severe mandatory minimum penalties in a number of specified sexual offences, such as sexual assault when the victim is less than sixteen years of age and the offender is more than 3 years older than the victim (§45-5-502(3)), or sexual assault without consent (§45-5-503(4)) and incest (§ 45-5-507(5)), when the victim was 12 years of age or younger and the offender was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offence, or for offences such as prostitution (§45-5-601(3)), promoting prostitution (§45-5-602(3)), aggravated promotion of prostitution (§45-5-603(2)) when the “prostitute” was 12 years of age or younger and the offender was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offence, or sexual abuse of children (§45-5-625(4)), when the victim was 12 years of age or younger and the offender was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offence.Footnote 114
The relief which is provided by §46-18-222(6) is unusual and justified on the basis of the prospect for the rehabilitation of the offender. It requires the judge to determine, “based on the findings contained in a sexual offender evaluation report prepared by a qualified sexual offender evaluator pursuant to the provisions of §46-23-509, that treatment of the offender while incarcerated, while in a residential treatment facility, or while in a local community affords a better opportunity for rehabilitation of the offender and for the ultimate protection of the victim and society.” In those cases, the judge must include in his or her judgment a statement of the reasons for the determination.
Also, as mentioned before, in Victoria, a 2013 law imposing mandatory minimum penalties for “gross violent offences” stipulates that the mandatory minimum penalty may be deviated from when the court proposes to make a hospital security order or a residential treatment order in respect of the offender.Footnote 115
8. Presumptive minimum penalties
A presumptive minimum sentencing regime is one in which prescribed legislative minimum sentences dictate the sentence that must be imposed by a court in sentencing offenders, but where the law also stipulates grounds upon which the court may find the presumption to be rebutted and proceed to exercise its full sentencing discretion (See: Sentencing Advisory Council, 2008: 6).
It has been argued that much of what mandatory minimum penalties are meant to achieve can be achieved by making such laws presumptive, not unlike what is already the de facto situation in many jurisdictions where sentencing guidelines were adopted and are enforced.Footnote 116 Michael Tonry argues that: “Converting all mandatory penalties to presumptive penalties would sacrifice few of the values sought to be achieved by such laws but would avoid many of the undesirable side effects” (Tonry, 2009: 103; also, Tonry 2014).Footnote 117 The following are examples of jurisdictions where mandatory minimum penalties have been established (or have evolved) as presumptive penalties, allowing deviations from the presumptive sentence in exceptional circumstances.
Four examples are presented here. These are the cases of England and Wales, which has presumptively binding guidelines, Connecticut which has both strict and presumptive minimum sentences, Minnesota which has both presumptive sentencing guidelines and minimum penalties, and New South Wales which has adopted a presumptive standard non-parole period sentencing scheme.
England and Wales
The Sentencing Council of England and Wales has formulated presumptively binding sentencing guidelines that promote uniformity at sentencing by prescribing a sequence of steps for courts to follow when sentencing an offender, while also allowing for a significant degree of discretion (Roberts, 2013; Mallet, 2015). Roberts noted that that the sentencing guidelines are much less rigid that those adopted in the US: “Across the US, most guideline systems employ numerical presumptively binding guidelines with a more rigorous compliance requirement” (Roberts, 2013: 11). A court is only required to “have regard to” the Council’s guidelines and to give reasons in the event of a “departure” from them.
With respect to prescribed minimum sentences for murder, judges are required to consider various starting points, mitigating and aggravating factors, and other considerations, and while the legislation is not binding, it requires judges to state their reason for departing from the guidelines in their sentencing judgment (Fitz-Gibbon, 2016: 51).
Connecticut - Mandatory minimum penalty as a “presumptive minimum sentence”
As of February 2015, the State of Connecticut had 74 crimes that carry a mandatory prison sentence of a specific duration, 15 of which can result in a person being punished as a persistent dangerous felony offender if he/she stands convicted of certain serious offences and has prior convictions of certain serious crimes (OLR, Connecticut General Assembly, 2015). Over the years, the State has adopted two forms on mandatory minimum penalties: strict mandatory minimum sentences requiring a judge to impose a statutorily fixed minimum sentence regardless of mitigating factors (no opportunity for discretion), and presumptive minimum sentences. Under the presumptive sentencing dispositions, a judge may exercise his or her discretion to depart from a mandatory minimum prison term with a statement explaining the reasons for the departure.
The Connecticut General Statutes contain several drug or firearms related offences which stipulate exceptions to the application of the mandatory minimum penalty, thus making the mandatory penalty presumptive.Footnote 118 In some instances, the “presumptive nature” of the mandatory minimum sentence only applies to the first conviction for that offence (e.g., a first conviction for driving during license suspension for DWI and DWI related offences).
Minnesota – Presumptive sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum penalties
In Minnesota, sentencing guidelines were developed several decades ago in order to establish rational and consistent sentencing standards which reduce sentencing disparity and ensure that sanctions following conviction of a felony are proportional to the severity of the offence of conviction and the extent of the offender's criminal history.Footnote 119 The guidelines are to be used to determine the presumptive sentence, but the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission makes it clear that “while the sentencing guidelines are advisory to the sentencing judge, departures from the presumptive sentences established in the guidelines should be made only when substantial and compelling circumstances exist” (Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 2011: 1).
When such factors are present, the judge may depart from the presumptive disposition or duration provided in the guidelines, and stay or impose a sentence that is deemed to be more appropriate than the presumptive sentence. When a sentence departs from the sentencing guidelines, it is an exercise of judicial discretion constrained by case law and appellate review. In such instances, the judge must disclose in writing or on the record the particular substantial and compelling circumstances that make the departure more appropriate than the presumptive sentence. Furthermore, when a plea agreement is made that involves a departure from the presumptive sentence, the court must cite the reasons that underlie the plea agreement or explain the reasons the negotiation was accepted. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, explained:
“The purposes of the sentencing guidelines cannot be achieved unless the presumptive sentences are applied with a high degree of regularity. Sentencing disparity cannot be reduced if judges depart from the guidelines frequently. Certainty in sentencing cannot be attained if departure rates are high” (Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 2011: 29).
There are also several serious crimes for which Minnesota statutes prescribe a mandatory minimum sentence (e.g., where a firearm was used during the commission of the offence). However, in most of these cases, judges now have the authority to impose a different sentence if reasons are given. In that sense, some of the mandatory minimum penalties, operating in conjunction with the sentencing guidelines, have become presumptive. According to the State’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, “when a motion to sentence apart from the mandatory minimum is made by the prosecutor or the judge, it becomes legal to stay imposition or execution of sentence or to impose a lesser sentence than the mandatory minimum” (2011: 38). In such instances, written reasons are required to specify the substantial and compelling nature of the circumstances which led to that decision and to “demonstrate why the sentence selected is more appropriate, reasonable or equitable than the presumptive sentence” (Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 2011: 38).
New South Wales: Standard non-parole period sentencing scheme
In New South Wales, a new standard non-parole period statutory scheme for specified indictable offences was added to the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 by the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Amendment (Standard Minimum Sentencing) Act 2002. It introduced standard non-parole periods for a broad range of serious indictable offences (e.g., murder, wounding or grievous bodily harm with intent, sexual intercourse without consent, sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 10 years, or robbery with arms and wounding). A standard non-parole period for each offence is set out in a table included in the law and “represents the non-parole period for an offence in the middle of the range of objective seriousness for offences.”Footnote 120
There were further amendments to the statutory scheme by the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Amendment Act 2007 and the Crimes Amendment (Sexual Offences) Act 2008, adding to the list of offences to which standard non-parole periods applied and excluding from the application of the scheme offenders who were under 18 years of age at the time of the offence.Footnote 121
The purpose of the statutory scheme was to make sentencing more consistent and transparent, and not to introduce mandatory sentencing. The scheme was meant to “provide further guidance and structure to judicial discretion.”Footnote 122 Section 54B(2) of the Act provided at the time that “the court is to set the standard non-parole period as the non-parole period for the offence unless the court determines that there are reasons for setting a non-parole period that is longer or shorter (…).” Legitimate departures from the standard non-parole period set by law are quite possible: the use of the word “may” in s. 54B(3) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act confers a discretion on the court to depart from a standard non-parole period.Footnote 123
The reasons for which the court may set a non-parole period that is longer or shorter than the standard non-parole period are described in s. 21A of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act. Ss. 21A(2) and 21A(3) respectively list various aggravating and mitigating factors, while s. 21A(1) also permits consideration of “any other objective or subjective factor that affects the relative seriousness of the offence” and adds that the matters specifically listed in the section are to be considered “in addition to any other matters that are required or permitted to be taken into account by the court under any Act or rule of law.”
The court in R v Way (2004) said that “statutory and common law factors may still properly be taken into account in determining a sentence even though they are not listed in s. 21A(2) or (3)”, including the fundamental principle of individualised justice.Footnote 124 Therefore, the matters that may justify a departure from the standard non-parole period may include those recognised by the common law but not mentioned in s. 21A (e.g., offender’s ill health, hardship to the offender as a result of protective custody, hardship to third parties, and the principles of parity and totality). In that sense, the standard non-parole periods set by law, act more as reference point, along with the other factors such as authorities, guideline judgments, or the specified maximum penalty for an offence.
The dispositions concerning the application of the standard non-parole periods should not be understood in mandatory terms. This was made clear in Muldrock v The Queen (2011), where all Justices of the High Court in a single judgment held that the Court of Criminal Appeal had erred “by treating the provision of the standard non-parole period as having determinative significance in sentencing the appellant.”Footnote 125 The High Court also held that “… it was an error [of the court in R v Way] to characterise s. 54B(2) as framed in mandatory terms.”Footnote 126
According to s. 44 (1)(3), “(…) when sentencing an offender to imprisonment for an offence, the court is first required to set a non-parole period for the sentence (that is, the minimum period for which the offender must be kept in detention in relation to the offence).” The full range of subjective considerations is capable of warranting a finding of special circumstances. In R v Simpson, Chief Justice Spigelman said:
“The words ‘special circumstances’ appear in numerous statutory provisions. They are words of indeterminate reference and will always take their colour from their surroundings … the non-parole period is to be determined by what the sentencing judge concludes that all of the circumstances of the case, including the need for rehabilitation, indicate ought [to] be the minimum period of actual incarceration.” Footnote 127
The Judicial Commission of New South Wales noted that a finding of special circumstances under ss. 44(2) or 44(2B) authorises a reduction in the otherwise appropriate non-parole period, but it does not authorise an increase in the term of the sentence.Footnote 128 The reform of the offender will often be the purpose in finding special circumstances, but this is not the sole purpose.Footnote 129 The risk of institutionalisation, even in the face of entrenched and serious recidivism, may be regarded as a sufficiently special circumstance to warrant adjusting the statutory ratio.Footnote 130
A study of the impact of the standard non-parole period sentencing scheme on sentencing patterns in New South Wales, concluded the statutory scheme had generally resulted in a greater uniformity of, and consistency in, sentencing outcomes (Poletti and Donelli, 2010).
9. Relief available post-sentencing
A more indirect way to create exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences is to make them subject to review while they are being served. In the United States, at the federal level, the Bureau of Prosecution can petition the court to reduce an inmate’s sentence if the court finds that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction”; or the inmate is at least 70 years of age, has served at least 30 years of his or her sentence, and a determination has been made by the Director of the BOP that the inmate is not a danger to the safety of any other person or the community (James, 2014).
A process also exists in Maryland where the code contains mandatory minimum sentences for certain handgun and drug distribution offences. The state’s mandatory sentencing requirements largely target repeat offenders, and judges can impose a lesser sentence provided the prosecution agrees. The Court of Appeals has also stated that plea agreements that stipulate a sentence below a mandatory minimum for repeat offences are acceptable and that prosecutors are free to decide whether or not to seek the mandatory minimum for a repeat offender. Since 1999, Maryland’s criminal procedure code makes it possible for offenders sentenced to prison for more than two years, including offenders sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence, to apply for reconsideration of their sentence by a three-judge panel (excluding the sentencing judge) from the same circuit in which they were sentenced.Footnote 131 In the case of a prisoner serving a mandatory sentence, the sentence cannot be decreased unless the vote of the panel is unanimous. The likelihood of obtaining relief from a sentence review is apparently quite small (Justice Policy Institute, 2006).
The draft Model Penal Code Sentencing of the American Law Institute also includes provisions for a sentence modification judicial review panel to review the sentences of offenders who have served at least 15 years of their sentence (American Law Institute, 2011: 76).
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