Featured News 2020 Define the Law: Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Define the Law: Mandatory Minimum Sentences

One of a judge’s chief powers is to issue sentences according to his or her judgement. Their role is to consider the law, consider the facts, and pass a sentence that’s fair and just in light of both. In the late 1970s, however, Congress passed a series of laws that bound judges with inflexible sentencing minimums (usually in cases involving drug or weapons charges). These laws, collectively, create mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level. However, state lawmakers have also passed statewide mandatory minimums. Half of the states in the U.S. have mandatory sentencing laws.

Rather than have the discretion to pass light sentences on non-violent offenders, judges were forced to give sentences of 10-15 years on people who never committed a violent crime and had no prior trouble with the law.

In one case, a young woman had given her aunt a ride to a house where her aunt (unbeknownst to the young woman) was involved in a drug deal. She received a ten-year sentence without parole for accidentally participating in a drug deal against her will.

Here’s what the judge had to say:

“This case is the perfect example of why the minimum mandatory sentences and the sentencing guidelines are not only absurd, but an insult to justice.”

He sentenced her, not because that’s what the facts led him to do, but because mandatory minimums forced him to.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines vs. Mandatory Minimums

In an effort to ensure that federal courts handed down sentences that were consistent nationwide, in 1984 judges were required to abide by Federal Sentencing Guidelines outlined in the Guidelines Manual. These guidelines provide a range within which a judge could pass a sentence. While the sentence ranges outlined in the Guidelines Manual were originally treated as inflexible mandates, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually changed how they were applied.

As of a 2005 Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, these guidelines are “advisory”; federal judges can look at the manual for advice, but ultimately they get to make the decision about what a fair sentence is.

However, sentencing guidelines are not the same as statutory mandatory minimums. In any case where the sentencing guidelines are less harsh than the statutory mandatory minimum, the judge must apply the harsher of the two sentences. This has, in many cases, prevented federal judges from using their discretion in cases where a lighter sentence would be more appropriate.

Mandatory Minimums Give Prosecutors More Power

In many cases, sentencing discretion passed from the judge’s hands to the prosecutor’s. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act gave prosecutors the power to influence a defendant’s sentence, which would be used to get defendants to accept plea deals. With the passage of mandatory minimums, prosecutors have even more power over defendants’ lives. Because prosecutors have the power to file prior offenses, prosecutors often have control over whether a defendant will receive a light sentence, or a ten-year sentence without parole. Prosecutors often use this power to compel defendants to plead guilty.

Over the last few decades, the law has given more power to prosecutors to influence sentencing, and it’s made it harder for judges to deal with first-time offenders mercifully in light of the facts. No one gets off lightly now, which is why it’s more important than ever to hire a powerful criminal defense attorney.

Find the experienced advocate you need today!

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