One of the most important stages in a criminal trial is the sentencing hearing. The sentencing hearing is where a convicted criminal defendant will learn what type of punishment they will be receiving for committing a crime. Crimes that involve mandatory minimum sentences are typically felony offenses. Felony offenses carry a bare minimum of at least one full year of imprisonment, plus criminal fines.

Similar to the baseline rule for penalties for felonies, a “mandatory minimum sentence” is a federal or state statute that specifies the shortest amount of jail or prison time that a defendant can receive for committing a particular type of crime (usually for gun or drug crimes). These guidelines are set by Congress or state legislatures, not by federal or state judges. As such, a judge is bound to impose these punishments, regardless of a defendant’s circumstances.

While there are two very minor exceptions that would give a judge leeway to reduce a mandatory minimum sentence, the exceptions often do not apply in most cases. Thus, many defendants are forced to serve a prison sentence, even for nonviolent crimes. This consequence has been one of the main criticisms of mandatory minimum sentences since they were established in 1986.

Originally, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were implemented to ensure that certain criminal defendants remained in jail for long periods of time. The rationale was that a long prison sentence would keep the public safe from violent offenders and deter persons from committing these sorts of crimes. Unfortunately, these statutes have only proven to be problematic for a number of reasons.

For one, mandatory minimum sentences have not satisfied their intended purpose. Oftentimes, the statutes result in ineffective and cruel forms of punishment that target low-level offenders, rather than the violent offenders they were meant to punish and who tend to evade the system.

Recently, both federal and state legislatures have been considering extensive criminal reform measures that would cure some of the issues prompted by mandatory minimum sentences. One of these reform measures includes a law that was passed by Congress in 2018 known as the First Step Act (“FSA”). Among several other changes, the FSA aims to amend mandatory minimum sentences and provide for alternative sentencing programs like drug counseling.

The FSA also recognizes the need for lower sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders. It also raises awareness of other major issues with mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, including the fact that many punishments do not fit the crime committed and that they remove or reduce the level of discretion that a judge has over issuing a sentence.

Federal and State Drug Selling Law Differences

There are several differences between the laws for federal and state drug trafficking and/or drug selling crimes. In general, state drug selling laws apply when a drug sale occurs within a particular state, whereas federal drug selling and/or trafficking laws apply when a drug-related event happens across state lines, on federal property (e.g., a military base), and/or crosses international borders.

Although not always, many times the laws and procedures in state court will differ from the ones applied in a federal court. For example, the prison sentences issued for committing a federal drug crime are usually much harsher than the ones imposed for committing a state drug crime. The same discrepancy holds true for the amount of criminal fines that a defendant may need to pay in a federal versus a state court for committing a federal or state drug crime.

One of the reasons that may explain this phenomenon is that convictions for federal drug crimes are usually related to offenses like drug trafficking, while convictions for state drug crimes usually entail lesser crimes like drug possession and/or usage. Though some states may adopt mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, they function much differently than the ones for federal drug crimes.

For instance, drug selling laws in the state of Texas assign criminal penalties based on the weight and kind of drug involved in the alleged crime. Texas law also separates certain drugs into penalty categories to determine the degree of felony and the sentencing range that a judge should impose.

As an example, a defendant who is convicted of possession of less than one gram of cocaine in Texas, can receive a criminal fine of up to $10,000 and a prison sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. This is because Texas law dictates that possessing one gram of cocaine is considered a state felony. The more cocaine that a defendant has on them, the more severe of a punishment they are likely to receive.

In contrast, if a defendant is convicted of selling twenty-eight grams of crack cocaine under federal law, then this will trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. While this is clearly a much more serious crime than the one provided in the example for Texas state, the fact remains that federal drug selling crimes are accompanied by mandatory minimum sentences.

In addition, state sentencing guidelines may also account for the age and criminal record of a defendant. Though these factors may have some effect on cases involving federal law, they usually do not make much of a difference since federal drug crimes nearly always carry a mandatory minimum sentence.

What are Some Problems with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws?

As previously mentioned, one of the most blatant issues with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is the fact that they do not impose fair punishments.

For instance, when a crime triggers mandatory minimum sentencing laws, a judge will not have authority to tailor a defendant’s sentence to the specific facts of their case. Thus, a defendant who was an accessory or only played a minor role in the crime can receive the same mandatory minimum sentence as a defendant who led the entire commission of the crime.

Another issue that is associated with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is that they tend to disproportionately affect minority defendants; in part because they were passed in response to the “War on Drugs.” This is a major problem that the United States has failed to address and is only now attempting to reform.

One other issue with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is that they do not permit criminal defendants to enter into plea bargains with prosecutors. This means that even if a prosecutor wanted to offer a defendant a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty, they will not be permitted to do so under such laws. This deprives a defendant who has committed a low level or nonviolent crime of their opportunity to receive a lesser offense on their criminal record.

It also deprives the defendant of the ability to resolve a matter quickly and at a lower cost for both their finances and reputation in the community. Since mandatory minimum sentences are typically reserved for drug crimes, many nonviolent offenders are stuck with a prison sentence and barred from taking a plea deal. This means that a lot of people are sitting in prison for long periods of time for using or possessing drugs, as opposed to committing murder.

This is a problem because it leads to overcrowding in prisons, which is not the most effective way to punish many of these nonviolent offenders, nor does it offer any benefits to society for numerous reasons.

Additionally, many lawmakers believe that it strips judges of their traditional and proper powers because they are not permitted discretion to evaluate or “judge” the circumstances surrounding the crime and/or the individual. Instead, the power is granted to prosecutors who may abuse mandatory minimum sentences as a scare tactic or to gain information from a criminal defendant. These laws are then applied automatically, instead of weighted to fit the crime.

In sum, it seems as if mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have done more harm than good over the years. Critics of these laws argue that they are unfair, unforgiving, hurtful to nonviolent criminals and their families, and have not made society any safer.

On the other hand, the proponents claim that no drug offense should be considered a “low-level” crime and thus punishments are doled out appropriately in applying mandatory minimum sentences. This ignores the glaring issue that some of these crimes are committed due to addiction. So, instead of helping others, the law punishes them for their shortcomings or a disease that requires counseling and treatment, not a longer prison sentence.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you are facing charges for a federal or state crime, it is strongly recommended that you hire a local criminal defense attorney immediately for further guidance. Depending on the crime you are being accused of committing, you could be facing a mandatory minimum sentence, which means you will have to serve some amount of time in prison.

Having an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you against the charges, can potentially help you to avoid a jail sentence. Your attorney will be able to advise you of your rights as a criminal defendant under the law and can assist you in navigating the criminal justice system.

Your attorney can also determine whether there are any defenses available that you can raise against the charges, as well as can present a solid defensive argument in court on your behalf. Additionally, even if you are convicted of a crime that requires the judge to issue a mandatory minimum sentence, your attorney can ensure that you are treated as fairly as possible.