What are Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

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Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require the judge to give the convicted person a minimum sentence that is frequently very long. The laws, which exist at the state and federal levels, remove discretion from the judge and limit their ability to decide how much punishment the person should get according to the specific case circumstances.

One of the most common mandatory minimum sentence controversies at the federal level involves those for drug cases. Many federal drug crimes carry serious, mandatory minimum sentences that can range from five to 40 years, and sometimes 10 years to life.

Mandatory minimum sentences have the unusual effect of transferring the power to sentence the defendant from the judge to federal prosecutors. It is common for federal prosecutors to make threats to bring charges with mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years and more to scare you into pleading guilty, in exchange for getting a reduced sentence and giving up all of the possible ways to make a good defense. It is for that reason that as many as 95% of federally charged drug defendants plead guilty. This is also a common outcome on federal sex crime charges.

Federal mandatory minimum sentences cover the following crimes:

  • Drug dealing
  • Murdering federal officials
  • Using a gun to commit federal crimes

Many mandatory sentences range from 10-20 years in prison. For example a 5-40 year federal sentence has to be imposed on a person who is convicted of distributing five grams of methamphetamine. This is only a five day supply for a serious drug user. For drug crimes, mandatory minimum sentences are usually triggered by how much the drugs weigh. The weights of all drug transactions that were done by a defendant are added up. The weight of each transaction, including those that were admitted to and even boasted about, can be added to the weights of the drugs that were actually seized by police.

In some quarters, mandatory minimum sentences have been criticized as unduly harsh, but others say that they provide a certain and necessary means for imprisoning hardened criminals.

Types of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

These statutes come in many forms. The most controversial ones are those that state that the offender must be sentenced for ‘not less than.’ Some of the sentences, such as drug trafficking mandatory minimums, are triggered by the type of offense.

Others can be triggered by the record of the convicted, such as with three strike provisions. A few of the statutes in this area at the federal level are less ‘mandatory’ than others. For example, some of the drug-related minimums have what is called a ‘safety valve’ which may make the minimum penalty less than the mandatory one for a non-violent, first time offender.

Why Mandatory Minimum Sentences Are Used

US Congress and the states have used mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses over the years, but they are very common in drug cases. Federal drug charges usually involve several defendants and most often are charged as conspiracies. In a federal conspiracy, mandatory minimum drug sentences are usually based upon the weight of the drugs in all transactions that were made by all of the people involved in the conspiracy. Thus, a mere drug courier can face the same penalty as the leader of the entire group who arranged millions of dollars worth of drug shipments.

Congress passed the mandatory minimum laws 30 years ago with the idea to focus on drug traffickers that move millions of dollars of drugs every year. But this has not been how it has worked out in reality in some cases. The US Sentencing Commission reported a few years ago that high level drug traffickers only made up 11% of defendants at the federal level. More than 20% of defendants were street dealers and 17% were couriers. Just 2% of those who were facing federal drug trafficking charges were supervisors or managers. The rest of them were low level offenders.

Arguments Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Those against argue that the practice has not reduced sentencing disparities, because there is still sentencing discretion: It merely has been moved from judges to prosecutors. Judges have to impose whatever sentence the statutes require, but prosecutors are not obligated to charge the defendant with breaking a law that carries the mandatory minimum penalty.

Prosecutors have a great deal of discretion over what types of criminal charges to bring, such as whether to charge a violation of law that has a mandatory minimum sentence. Also, they have the discretion to engage in plea bargaining, which can include whether or not to trade away a criminal count that includes that law.

Further, the prosecutor has unreviewable discretion about whether to ask the court to cut the defendant’s sentence due to his assistance to the government in bringing the case to trial.

Critics further charge that giving prosecutors such a wide degree of discretion is more evil than too much judicial discretion. Prosecutors have not been trained to deal with sentencing and do not always exercise their discretion transparently. Critics further charge that prosecutors stand to gain professionally by getting convictions under mandatory minimums, so they lack incentive to use their discretion in a responsible manner.

Critics also state that mandatory minimum sentences do little to reduce crime rates. Some studies suggest that mandatory penalties do not have a deterrent effect. It also is unclear if mandatory minimums reduce drug operations because if a low level offender is jailed, he usually is just replaced quickly by another low level offender.

Another factor that opponents of these laws cite is that mandatory minimum sentences are wasteful and expensive. In 2015, the average cost to incarcerate a prisoner at the federal level was $32,000 per year. The prison budget at the federal level has increased from less than $4 billion in 2000 to $5 billion in 2006, to $7 billion in 2017. This amount now exceeds by far the $5.5 billion given by the federal government to care for all homeless Americans and US residents.

Arguments for Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Advocates argue that mandatory minimums reflect the judgement of society that some crimes should have a minimum prison sentence and these laws ensure that anyone who commits that type of crime must serve a certain number of years.

Advocates further argue that in a nation of over 300 million people, there will be judges who have vastly different opinions about what a proper prison sentence is. The decision about what penalty should be given to certain offenders should be better handled by legislators, the argument goes. Americans have trusted legislatures to make the decisions about how strictly criminal conduct should be punished.

Therefore, having the US Congress state what the minimum penalty should be for a certain crime is consistent with how the legislature should act in the criminal justice system, advocates for the laws state.

Also, mandatory minimums reduce dishonesty in sentencing throughout the 20th century. During that time, Congress gave district courts total discretion to set the appropriate prison sentence for a criminal. It also gave parole officers the ability to decide when to release the inmate before the sentence was complete.

This gave the public the impression that the sentenced was fixed by the judge, but in reality the decision about the sentence in the end was left to parole officers who acted outside the knowledge of the public at large.

Mandatory minimums also ensure that prison sentences are 100% uniform all through the federal system and make sure that people are punished in a way that is commensurate with the crime they committed.

It also is a mistake to condemn these laws because imprisoning them costs taxpayer money. Arguing that putting these criminals in prison is too expensive does not consider that fewer criminals are on the streets and this reduces the costs that the criminals cost the general public when they commit their crimes.

The last argument in favor of these sentences is that generally, those who are opposed mainly are opposed because they are used for many drug offenses.

In recent years, the federal government has started to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences. President Obama, for example, has called for an overhaul of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that many of the criminals are nonviolent drug offenders and do not really belong in prison anyway.

Possibilities for Reform of Mandatory Minimum Sentence Laws

Even though there has been serious opposition for decades, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have persisted. Over the last decade, however, some states, including SC and RI, have gotten rid of some of their mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. This presents a potential model for federal reforms as well.

Recent Findings On Mandatory Minimum Sentences by the United States Sentencing Commission

The United States Sentencing Commission recently released a report on the use and impact of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Based upon the tone of this report, it is possible the findings here could be used to potentially make changes to how these laws are used to punish some drug offenders. Key findings are below:

Drug mandatory minimum penalties are resulting in long sentences in federal prison

  • In 2016, more than 50% of those convicted of an offense with a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug crime had a sentence of at least 10 years.
  • In 2016, the average federal sentence for drug offenders for crimes with a minimum sentence was 94 months. This was more than double the average sentence of 42 months for drug offenders who were convicted of crimes that did not require a minimum sentence.
  • Federal offenders who were able to get sentence relief had lower sentences of 64 months than those who had to have a mandatory minimum sentence – 126 months. Even when offenders obtained relief from the mandatory minimum, the average sentence of 64 months was still 1.5 times greater than the average sentence for those who were not convicted for a crime that had a mandatory minimum drug crime sentence.

Mandatory minimum penalties have a major effect on the size of the federal prison population

  • As of 2016, almost 50% of inmates in federal prison were there for drug crimes.
  • Among all of the drug offenders who were in prison as of 2016, 72% where convicted of crimes with a mandatory minimum sentence. More than 50% were subject to such a penalty when they were sentenced.

Offenses with a drug mandatory minimum sentence were used less often since 2010

  • It was determined that 44% of all drug offenders who were sentenced in 2016 were convicted of offenses with a mandatory minimum sentence. This was a major decrease from 2010, when 66% of drug offenders were convicted for such offenses. The number of drug offenders convicted with a mandatory minimum sentence has dropped 44% since 2010.
  • This downward trend in the last six years was in all types of drug crimes, but the biggest drop was in people who offended with crack cocaine. After the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the number of crack cocaine offenders who were convicted with a mandatory minimum sentence has dropped from 80% to 46%.

Fewer were convicted of offenses with mandatory minimums, but those that were convicted were more serious crimes

  • Convictions for drug offenses with a mandatory minimum sentence were more likely to involve a weapon in 2016.
  • Offenders who were convicted of drug crimes with the use of a weapon were more likely to have been in a role of leadership in 2016 than in the past.
  • The rate at which offenders who were convicted of a drug offense with a mandatory minimum penalty who got relief from new laws decreased from 35% to 30 percent from 2010 to 2016.

Generally, the report finds that drug mandatory minimum penalties may have been applied at the federal level more broadly than the US Congress expected. But it appears from this report that statutory relief that intended to reduce the number of minor drug offenders with mandatory minimum sentences played a major role in reducing the number of minor drug players with sentences of 10 years or more.


Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

Geoffrey G Nathan is a top federal crimes lawyer and Chief Editor of FederalCharges.com. He is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. If you have questions about your federal case he can help by calling 877.472.5775.