"Mandatory minimums" are sentencing laws that have recently been very popular. These laws require that a specified length of sentence be imposed if certain criteria are met. For instance, if someone is convicted of possessing half a kilogram of cocaine powder, he must be sentenced to at least five years in prison. Mandatory minimums were enacted in the 1980s at the height of fears about Illegal drug use (specifically, the introduction of crack cocaine). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act created mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences have since garnered much controversy.
Prior to the law, federal judges had discretion in sentencing. However, the new laws dictate the minimum sentences allowed. Sentencing was harsher for crack cocaine crimes than powder cocaine crimes. Also, the amount of the drug (rather than the convict’s past criminal history or his role) governed the sentence the criminal received. For example:
- Conviction of a drug offense involving five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine – At least 5 years in prison
- Conviction of a drug offense involving 50 grams of crack or 5,000 grams of powder cocaine – Minimum of 10 years in prison
- Possession of more than 5 grams of crack – Felony punishable by at least 5 years in prison
Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors:
- Type of drug
- Weight of the drug mixture
- Number of prior convictions
Offenders may reduce their mandatory sentences by providing the prosecutor with "substantial assistance" in prosecuting other offenders.
Some people point out that mandatory sentencing does not deter crime. Among the arguments are:
- Prison overcrowding – Most of the increase in the federal prison population is due to drug convictions
- Racial injustice – African Americans are incarcerated at higher rate than whites
- Women – The number of women in prison for drug law violations increased
Opponents also believe that mandatory minimums are costly, unjust, and do not eliminate sentencing disparities while failing to punish high-level "kingpins."