What are Mandatory Minimums in Sentencing?
If you plead guilty or a court or jury convicts you of a crime, a court will sentence you. Sometimes, sentencing occurs immediately after a plea or verdict. Other times, it takes place at a separate court hearing. Either way, courts use sentencing guidelines to decide how long you will go to prison for. For some crimes, though, there are mandatory minimums.
A mandatory minimum is a sentence that a court must give to you if you get convicted or plead guilty to a certain crime. Congress or state legislatures set these sentences. Courts must impose these sentences in every case. This is true no matter whether they believe you or your offense deserve them or not.
When do mandatory minimums apply?
Congress or state legislatures can create mandatory minimums for whatever crimes they choose. Usually, they apply to gun and drug crimes. If you have a certain type or quantity of drugs, a mandatory minimum might apply. Or, if you have gun when you commit another crime, a mandatory minimum might apply, too.
One nonprofit that works to end mandatory minimums is Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). They use crack cocaine as an example. “A person is convicted of selling 28 grams of crack cocaine. The mandatory sentence is 5 years in prison without parole. The court must give this sentence, even if it is too harsh for the offender, his role in the offense, or the nature of the crime.”
Congress created these sentences for federal drug offenses in the 1980s. Since then, nearly 300,000 people have faced mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses. Between 2006 and 2010, this meant that more than half of the people in federal custody were convicted of a crime with a mandatory minimum sentence.
What is the problem with mandatory minimums?
You can see what the problems are already. As FAMM puts it, “Anyone who has ever bought a ‘one size fits all’ T-shirt knows that one size never fits all!” If courts can’t choose a sentence they believe is best for a certain person or case, there is a problem.
Putting the entire focus on the drug or gun involved ignores other important things. For example, judges often can’t consider whether you suffered from addiction. They also can’t consider whether you are dangerous or what your specific role in the crime was.
Even worse, prosecutors often seek charges that come with mandatory minimums for low-level crimes. This is the opposite of what lawmakers intended. In short, people often face punishments that are too harsh for them or their crimes.
While no sentencing process is perfect, many state legislatures are considering other options. FAMM recommends two. First, courts should focus on recommended sentencing ranges. Second, courts should have flexibility. These changes would allow courts to make sure that sentences fit the crime and the criminal better.
Mandatory minimums are “one size fits all” sentences for certain crimes. They usually apply for drug and gun crimes but can also apply for others. These sentences tie judges’ hands and often make punishments feel unfair.