Is There a Way to Avoid Mandatory Minimum Sentences

The definition of a minimum mandatory sentence is a minimum prison sentence that a judge must impose. This type of sentence is used for specific crimes, and the judge is required to impose the sentence without considering any mitigating circumstances.

In US federal court, there are only two two ways for an individual facing a mandatory minimum sentence to avoid it. Those options are a safety valve or cooperation.


How Can a Safety Valve or Cooperation Be Used to Avoid a Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

The term safety valve refers to a provision created by the Sentencing Reform Act. The purpose of this provision is to provide a way for a sentence that’s below the statutory minimum to be authorized. However, in order for this provision to be used, the individual being sentenced must meet a specific set of criteria.

First, the defendant can’t have more than one criminal history point. Federal sentencing guidelines are used to determine the points in this system. Second, evidence must show that violence did not play a role in the offense. That includes possession of a dangerous weapon, credible threats of violence or inducing someone else to use violence.

The third guideline that must be met is the offense did not result in any serious injuries or deaths. Fourth, the defendant has to be found to not be a leader of the offense. This means they cannot have played any type of role in leading, organizing or managing. The offense must also fall outside the scope of a continuing criminal enterprise.

Last, by the time the sentencing hearing is held, the defendant is required to have shown full compliance with the US Attorney’s Office. This includes providing all evidence and information related to the offense in which the defendant was involved.

Cooperation is the second way a defendant can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence. It’s important to note that while the safety valve provision can make it possible to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence, the provision only applies to drug cases. But with cooperation, the provision outlined by federal law makes it applicable to a case of any nature.


Plea Deals vs. Mandatory Sentences

According to the New York Post, 97% of federal defendants plead guilty. The easiest way to understand why is to look at a case like Roy Lee Clay. In 2013, Clay was offered a plea deal to serve 10 years in prison. But when the Baltimore heroin dealer turned down this deal and went to trial, he received a mandatory life sentence. The reason for this extreme jump in sentencing severity was due to sentencing enhancements that could be invoked as a result Clay’s prior offenses.


Because of countless examples like Roy Lee Clay, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and other organizations are working to reform mandatory sentencing laws. To stay on top of any changes to this area of the law, be sure to visit