Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are laws which force a judge to hand down a minimum prison sentence for certain crimes, such as drug possession. These mandatory minimum sentences are set for possession of a drug over a certain amount and are set by Congress, not judges. Judges cannot lower these sentences, even for extenuating circumstances that would otherwise lessen the punishment.

This proves to be the biggest problem with mandatory minimum sentencing. Originally, these laws were passed to ensure that certain criminals served long prison sentences; however, critics of the system claim that these laws are cruel and ineffective. They have pointed out that these laws often unfairly target low-level offenders while the worst offenders tend to evade the system.

Another form of mandatory minimum sentencing is “three-strike law”. These laws dictate that you face a minimum sentence if you are convicted of a third felony. Many states have similar laws although the penalties may vary.

Federal and State Drug Selling Law Differences

There are differences between the federal and state drug selling and trafficking laws. Generally, state laws apply when the drug sale occurs in that state, whereas federal laws apply when the drug sale or trafficking crosses state borders, crosses international borders, or occurs on federal land, such as a military base. If you have been prosecuted for a crime in state court, the laws and process will be different from the federal laws and process.

Although some states use sentencing guidelines and have mandatory minimum sentences, they each function differently. For instance, Texas law assigns penalties based on the weight of certain types of drugs, dividing the drugs into penalty groups to determine the type of felony and punishment range.

In Texas, possessing less than 1 gram of cocaine is a state jail felony with up to 2 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Whereas possessing 1 - 4 grams is a 2nd degree felony with possible punishment of 2 - 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Under federal law, selling 28 grams of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison, regardless of what a judge believes is a fair sentence.

What are Some Problems with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws?

The most glaring issue with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is how unfair they are. Because a judge does not have the authority to tailor the sentence to the facts specific to the individual case, someone who was an unimportant part of the drug conspiracy or someone who was simply an accessory, might receive the same minimum sentence as the ringleader of the whole operation. Another arguing point is that these minimums disproportionately affect minorities and are part of the War on Drugs, which is thought to be a failure.

Another issue with these laws is that they do not allow for plea bargains. This means that even if the prosecutor wanted to offer a reduced sentence for a plea, they are unable to do so. This robs those who are “less guilty” of their chance to have a less serious offense on their criminal record, resolve the matter quickly, and avoid a messy trial that could potentially harm their reputation.

Many non-violent offenders get hit with these sentences and are unable to enter a plea bargain. According to several studies, mandatory minimum sentencing laws are most often applied in federal court for drug cases, as discussed. However, the vast majority of federal drug defendants are non-violent offenders.

Many people feel this policy leads to prison overcrowding of non-violent offenders.. Many offenders who may have otherwise received short sentences, or not been given a sentence at all, are imprisoned for many years due to mandatory sentencing. As prison populations have grown exponentially, many judges and lawyers have argued that mandatory minimums should be done away with to combat this issue.

Others feel that these laws strip a judge of their traditional and proper authority to consider the actual circumstances of the crime, in addition to the individual defendant’s characteristics. Federal judges, who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, have the wisdom and training to identify the most serious drug offenders and hand down the appropriate sentencing.

Mandatory minimums dispute these facts and transfer this very serious authority instead to prosecutors who may use long mandatory minimum sentences as a scare tactic to plead guilty, in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Clearly, mandatory minimum sentencing is controversial and, it could be argued, does more harm than good. Those against these laws contend that they are unforgiving, they have caused untold misery and have not made us safer. Proponents of mandatory minimum sentencing argue that no level of drug offense is “low-level” and all involvement, no matter how great or small, should be punished equally for this reason.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you have been accused of a crime, you need to speak to an attorney immediately. Depending on your crime, you may be facing a mandatory minimum sentencing which could include a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are most often implemented for drug and gun crimes. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to advise you on your options and provide you with a defense in court. Because these laws transfer authority to prosecutors who often use them as a scare tactic; an attorney will help ensure your fair treatment as much as possible.