In general, mandatory minimum drug sentences can be defined as the shortest length of prison time that a defendant can receive if they are convicted on criminal drug charges and the facts of their case satisfy certain conditions. The amount of prison time for mandatory minimum drug sentences is typically set by a federal or state statute and is usually for a crime that involves guns or drugs.
For example, if you were charged with and subsequently convicted of trafficking one kilo or more of heroin, then you would most likely automatically receive a prison sentence of no less than ten years in federal prison according to the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Unless you qualify for one of the two very narrow exceptions, this means that a judge would have no authority to reduce your sentence, regardless of your circumstances.
The reason for this is because mandatory minimum drug sentences are created by Congress and state legislatures. Thus, these guidelines can only be amended by lawmakers, not by state or federal courts.
Mandatory minimum drug sentences are a relatively recent concept. In response to the “War on Drugs” and a spike in fear of the use of illegal drugs (specifically, crack cocaine), Congress passed a law in 1986 that is known as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.
This Act led to the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes. A handful of states have also adopted their own versions, but these guidelines are mainly reserved for federal offenses.
Over time, mandatory minimum drug sentences have become a hotly debated issue. Today, laws such as the First Step Act of 2018, are slowly attempting to undo some of the damage that these sentences have caused to criminal defendants and their families. The First Step Act of 2018 is only the beginning of the movement to reform the criminal justice system in the United States.
How Do Mandatory Minimums Change the Law?
Before Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, federal judges had discretion over issuing criminal penalties. This meant that a judge could consider factors like a defendant’s personal circumstances and the facts surrounding a particular case. After the Act was passed, however, it removed this power from the courts by dictating a mandatory minimum sentence for specific types of crimes.
The Act also primarily focused on the type and quantity of drug involved in the crime. In other words, these two factors governed the outcome of a criminal drug case, rather than evaluating standard factors, such as a defendant’s criminal record and/or their role in committing the crime.
For instance, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a defendant convicted of a federal drug crime could previously receive the following penalties:
- A conviction of a drug offense involving the trafficking of 500 grams or more of powder cocaine carried a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.
- A conviction of a drug offense involving the trafficking of only 5 grams of crack cocaine carried the same mandatory minimum sentence.
- A conviction of possession of 5 or more grams of crack cocaine was considered a felony that was punishable for a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in federal prison.
It soon became obvious that the Act was in fact targeting minority criminal defendants simply based on the penalties that were imposed for powder versus crack cocaine. Congress did not begin to remedy this issue until it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
Unfortunately, this law also failed to resolve the problem since it only applied to criminal defendants who were convicted after August of 2010, meaning that anyone convicted from 1986 to August 2010 were still suffering the consequences of the initial 1986 Act.
The law was revised again in 2018 when Congress passed the First Step Act. In particular, the First Step Act allows for retroactive sentencing to apply to defendants who were convicted for drug crimes both before and after 2010. While this Act is certainly an improvement over the two previous laws, its provisions do not apply in every case and not all defendants may be eligible for a reduced sentence.
How Are Federal Mandatory Drug Sentences Determined?
Federal mandatory drug sentences are generally determined by reviewing a variety of factors, which usually include the following:
- The particular drug crime that the defendant is being accused of committing;
- Whether a defendant is a repeat or first-time offender;
- Which schedule the controlled substance or illegal drug is classified as; and/or
- The quantity or amount of drugs that were involved in the crime.
A prosecutor will review the factors and compare them to the federal mandatory drug sentencing guidelines, which offer the prescribed prison term. Once these numbers are calculated, this will be the absolute lowest amount of time or penalty that the defendant can receive if they are convicted of the drug charges. Also, while a prosecutor cannot recommend a lower sentence, they can always tack on time to the mandatory minimum sentence.
So, for example, if a criminal defendant is charged with a crime that involves fifty grams of methamphetamine, the current federal mandatory drug sentencing guidelines state that they must receive a minimum punishment of at least ten years’ imprisonment if they are convicted on those charges. This means that neither the judge nor the prosecutor can alter the sentence to anything less than ten years in federal prison; though they can increase it.
Why Are Mandatory Minimums Controversial?
Mandatory minimum drug sentences have been criticized for a number of different reasons, such as:
- They do not seem to deter crime or keep society any safer than what was initially believed;
- They lead to overcrowding in federal prison due to the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes;
- They are blatantly prejudiced against the African American population as demonstrated by the higher incarceration rates; and
- They have seemingly led to a larger portion of women being imprisoned for drug violations.
In addition, they do not allow a judge to exercise their traditional authority of issuing a punishment that fits the crime. They also cause increases in tax rates, unjust outcomes in criminal drug cases, and fail to eliminate sentencing disparities as they were originally intended to do.
Do I Need a Lawyer Experienced with Mandatory Minimums?
If you are facing charges for a drug crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, then it may be in your best interest to consult with a local drug attorney immediately for further legal advice. Depending on the type of drug crime that you are being accused of committing, you could be facing a mandatory minimum sentence ranging from anywhere between one full year to twenty years or longer in federal prison.
Thus, hiring an attorney who has experience in handling matters that involve criminal drug charges can be very beneficial to your case. Your attorney will be able to defend you against the charges and can make sure that your interests are protected. Your attorney can also advise you of your rights under the law and may be able to help you avoid a jail or prison sentence.
In addition, your attorney can help you navigate the often complicated criminal justice system and can determine whether there are any defenses you can raise against the drug charges. Your attorney can also provide representation in court or negotiate with a prosecutor on your behalf for a plea deal.
Finally, if it turns out that you are convicted of a crime that requires the court to impose a mandatory minimum drug sentence, then your attorney will be able to ensure that you are treated fairly and that your rights as a criminal defendant are not violated.