The legislature has determined in its wisdom that there is an appropriate punishment that fits each crime. This punishment may include anything from paying a simple fine to actual prison time.
While a judge has discretion in how to apply punishment in many criminal cases, there are criminal sentencing guidelines that have been articulated to help them avoid imposing sentences that are unconstitutional, inconsistent or unfair.
The federal government has its own sentencing guidelines, as do most states. These sentencing guidelines can vary from state to state, leading to quite divergent sentences for offenders who have committed similar crimes.
There are several qualities that are common with all criminal sentences, regardless whether they occur at the state or federal level. For example, sentences may be imposed that are either concurrent or consecutive and usually have a minimum and maximum number of years that the offender may be imprisoned.
A minimum sentence dictates the least amount of time a person may be imprisoned before becoming eligible for release. Conversely, a maximum sentence dictates the most time a person can be held in custody before being released from prison.
Sentencing guidelines recognize a judge’s discretion to vary sentencing according to the specific facts that are presented for each case. However, unlike sentencing guidelines, mandatory sentences statutes take such discretion out of the hands of the judge.
Mandatory sentences limit judicial discretion so that judges are required to impose mandatory minimum sentences. The judge in a criminal case involving a mandatory minimum can not order a lesser amount of time than dictated in the sentencing statute.
For example, under the law, selling a specific amount of crack cocaine may land you in jail for five years, regardless what the judge may think about your particular circumstances.
Why are there Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses?
Mandatory minimums became popular in the 1980s during the height of the war against drugs. Illegal drug use (especially crack cocaine) had contributed to certain high profile deaths and the legislature took action to curb such drug use by enacting The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
This Act created mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes and made a distinction in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Since, many states have adopted similar minimum sentencing guidelines for drug crimes based on the type and quantity of the drug and the circumstances of the drug offense.
Why is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Controversial for Drug Offenses?
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses isn’t without its controversy. Those who oppose mandatory minimums argue that these sentences are inflexible and were enacted to impose longer sentences without any pretense at rehabilitating the offender.
Further, they argue that these minimum sentences do not allow the judge to take into account the mitigating factors for each offender, essentially taking the sentence deciding role out of the hands of the judge. As well, they are alleged to contribute to prison overcrowding and disproportionately lead to the imprisonment of racial minorities and women.
Finally, opponents cite the failure of such mandatory minimums to punish the individuals at the top of the drug pyramid, instead leading to the overwhelming arrest of drug addicts and non-violent offenders.
How is a Mandatory Minimum Sentence Applied?
The mandatory minimum sentences are different based on the federal guidelines or your specific state statute. They are extremely complicated and require the expertise of an attorney to help you understand them.
Under mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, a judge’s discretion gets thrown out the window. Sentencing is determined based on the nature and volume of the drugs, the defendant’s criminal record and whether there were any injuries arising out of the offense.
In a drug case, for instance one involving five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine, an offender may be ordered to serve a minimum of five years in prison. If you there is 50 grams of crack cocaine, you might find yourself in jail for a minimum of ten years. For personal possession you may be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of five years.
Mandatory minimums are so named because they are mandatory and offer very limited exceptions. Nonetheless, you should consult with an attorney to determine whether there is some “safety valve” exception for low-level offenders based on your specific circumstances and whether your cooperation with the government can adjust your sentence.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentence?
Drug sentencing is incredibly complex and may involve different statutes, regulations and guidelines that lead to mandatory minimum sentencing. Mandatory minimum sentences tie a judges hand which may result in the imposition of a minimum sentence regardless of the circumstances of your case.
Consulting with a criminal attorney who regularly deals with drug sentencing is a smart decision to ensure you are getting the best legal advice about how to handle your particular case.