Mandatory Sentencing Minimums

judge holding gavel in courtroom

In March of 2016 the United States Sentencing Commission detailed that more than half (56.8%) of offenders in the federal prison population were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.

What are Mandatory Minimums?

Mandatory minimums are sentencing laws that require a specific minimum prison term to be imposed on offenders who are convicted of certain federal crimes. These minimums are strictly enforced, in that a sentence cannot be lowered that falls under this category. These minimums are specifically tailored to remove a judge’s discretion in sentencing and therefore have one main purpose – to ensure that certain offenders spend a specific amount of time in prison for the offense committed.

Back in the 1950s Congress attempted to enact mandatory minimums for specific drug crimes.  In 1970 all mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses were repealed. Then, in 1982, the “War on Drugs” ushered in a new mandatory minimum sentencing scheme. These mandatory minimums have since been broadly expanded to a variety of drug-related offenses.

How do Mandatory Minimums Apply?

The most commonly imposed federal mandatory minimum sentences arise under the Controlled Substance and Controlled Substance Import and Export Acts. The Acts contain a number of mandatory minimum penalty provisions.  Most involve possession with the intent to distribute (traffic) substantial amounts of controlled substances which are considered highly susceptible to abuse. Sentencing for drug crimes is based on the amount and type of drug involved. The mandatory minimums are structured so that more severe sentences attend cases involving substantial quantities, death or serious bodily injury, drugs are imported or exported out of the country, or repeat offenses.

The eight trigger substances are heroin, powder cocaine, cocaine base (crack), PCP, LSD, propanamide, methamphetamine, and marijuana. Each drug comes with one set of mandatory minimums for ten times that amount. In addition to the volume mandatory minimums for these eight, trafficking these drugs in smaller amounts of the substance carries mandatory minimums if the business results in death or serious bodily injury.

For example, if you are convicted of trafficking a 84(b)(1)(A) substance, for instance 1 kilo or more of heroin, then the minimum sentence is 10 years in prison. But if death or serious injury results or if you are a repeat offender, then the minimum is 20 years in prison. If both a serious injury results and you are a repeat offender, then the minimum is life in prison.

Can a Mandatory Minimum be Increased?

This question was addressed in Alleyne v. United States. There, the Supreme Court held that increasing a sentence beyond the mandatory minimum requirements must be submitted by a jury and then found factual beyond a reasonable doubt. This requirement then increases the burden on the prosecutor to prove that the higher sentence is necessary for the individual crime. Attorney General Holder noted here that the charges placed on an individual should reflect the uniqueness of the case and consideration in accessing and fairly representing the defendant’s conduct.

If you have been convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum sentence please contact the attorneys at Shein & Brandenburg. Our dedicated team can help you better understand these guidelines and ensure that you receive proper representation.