Mandatory minimum sentencing is a kind of criminal sentencing that involves specified fines and jail/prison sentences depending on the kind of crime. In most criminal cases, the judge has the discretion to set the sentence based on miscellaneous factors. These may include the defendant’s age, personal background, prior criminal record, and the type of crime involved.

Yet, with minimum mandatory sentencing, the minimum amount of jail time or fines is set by statute. This means that the individual will often have to face a minimum amount of years in jail or a minimum fine amount. This conclusion is based solely on the guidelines set forth by the minimum sentencing statute.

When Is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Applied?

Not all crimes involve mandatory minimum sentencing. Most criminal cases still rely on case law for creating sentencing (i.e., using sentences from earlier similar cases as a guide for the sentence).

Minimum sentences are only used in a handful of areas in criminal law, such as:

Therefore, mandatory minimum sentencing is a somewhat limited concept that applies to select cases. However, these laws can affect a person’s criminal record and their rights.

What Are Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences?

In general, mandatory minimum drug sentences can be defined as the shortest prison time that a defendant can receive if they are convicted on criminal drug charges and the facts of their case fulfill specific conditions. The amount of prison time for mandatory minimum drug sentences is commonly set by a federal or state statute and is usually for a criminality that involves guns or drugs.

For instance, if you were charged with and thereafter convicted of trafficking one kilo or more of heroin, you would most likely automatically receive no less than ten years in a federal prison according to the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Unless you qualify for one of the two very limited exceptions, a judge would have no power to reduce your sentence, regardless of your circumstances.

This is because Congress and state legislatures create mandatory minimum drug sentences. Thus, lawmakers can only amend these guidelines, not by state or federal courts.

Mandatory minimum drug sentences are a fairly recent concept. In response to the “War on Drugs” and a spike in fear of the use of illegal drugs (especially crack cocaine), Congress passed a law in 1986 known as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

This Act led to mandatory minimum sentences for specific federal drug crimes. Many states have also adopted their own versions, but these policies are mainly earmarked for federal offenses.

Over time, mandatory minimum drug sentences have become a hotly argued issue. Today, laws such as the First Step Act of 2018 are gradually trying to undo some of the damage these sentences have caused to criminal defendants and their families. The First Step Act of 2018 is only the start of the movement to improve the criminal justice system in the United States.

How Do Mandatory Minimums Alter the Law?

Before Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, federal judges had discretion over allocating criminal penalties. This meant that a judge could consider factors like a defendant’s personal circumstances and a particular case’s facts. Yet, after the Act was passed, it removed this authority from the courts by dictating a mandatory minimum sentence for specific crimes.

The Act also mainly concentrated on the type and quantity of drugs involved in the crime. In other words, these two factors controlled the outcome of a criminal drug case rather than considering standard factors, such as a defendant’s criminal record or their role in perpetrating the crime.

For example, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a defendant convicted of a federal drug crime could formerly receive the following penalties:

  • A drug offense conviction involving the trafficking of 500 grams or more of powder cocaine carried a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.
  • A drug offense conviction 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 punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in federal prison.

It soon became apparent that the Act was targeting minority criminal defendants based on the penalties imposed for powder versus crack cocaine. Congress did not begin to fix 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 convicted criminal defendants after August of 2010. Anyone convicted from 1986 to August 2010 was still suffering the consequences of the initial 1986 Act.

The law was modified again in 2018 when Congress enacted the First Step Act. In particular, the First Step Act allows for retroactive sentencing to apply to defendants who were convicted of drug crimes both before and after 2010. While this Act is undoubtedly an advance 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 typically determined by examining a variety of elements, 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
  • The quantity or amount of drugs that were involved in the crime.

A prosecutor will inspect the elements 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 lowest amount of time or penalty the defendant can obtain if convicted of the drug charges. Also, while a prosecutor cannot suggest a lower sentence, they can always tack on time to the mandatory minimum sentence.

Why Are Mandatory Minimums Controversial?

Mandatory minimum drug sentences have been attacked for several different reasons, such as:

  • They do not seem to prevent crime or keep society any safer than what was originally thought;
  • They lead to overcrowding in federal prison due to the number of individuals incarcerated for drug crimes;
  • They are blatantly biased against the African American population, as demonstrated by the higher incarceration rates; and
  • They have seemingly led to many women being imprisoned for drug violations.

In addition, they do not permit a judge to exercise their traditional authority of issuing a punishment that fits the crime. They also drive increases in tax rates, unjust outcomes in criminal drug cases, and fail to eliminate sentencing disparities as they were initially intended to do.

Can a Mandatory Sentence Be Lessened?

In most circumstances, mandatory minimum sentences may not be modified or altered. Such laws are considered “mandatory” because the sentences are required under the law.
Nevertheless, some jurisdictions permit mandatory sentences to be lessened if the defendant is willing to collaborate with authorities regarding additional investigations. This generally involves the defendant delivering information on other suspects in related criminal investigations.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?

Sentencing laws may differ widely by state. They will also vary according to the type of crime involved. It may be in your best interests to hire a qualified criminal attorney if you have any questions or legal issues involving sentencing laws. Your lawyer can discuss your rights with you and provide you with legal advice during trial sessions.