What are Mandatory Minimum Sentences

What Are Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

Did you know that over half of the inmates incarcerated in federal prison were convicted of an offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty?  In 2016, 92,870 federal inmates were convicted of an offense that required a mandatory minimum sentence. This aggressive sentencing technique is a way to deal with more serious crimes. Unfortunately, many defendants facing federal mandatory minimums don’t deserve these harsh sentences for their crimes.

We’ve organized this article to help explain the concept of mandatory minimums and provide legal advice on the best ways to avoid them.

What Are Mandatory Minimums?

A mandatory minimum is a type of criminal sentence that comes with a fixed minimum amount of prison time attached to it. These types of sentences take place within the federal court system. That means the mandatory minimum charges are being brought by federal prosecutors employed by the United States Department of Justice, instead of state and local ones.

Minimum mandatory sentences can vary from 24 months to 5, 10, 15, 20, or even minimum mandatory life in prison, depending on various factors including the charge(s), facts, a defendant’s individual criminal history, and so on.

When handling these types of cases, federal judges use two primary mechanisms to arrive at their sentencing decisions: the Federal United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) or statutory law, which also includes mandatory minimums. The USSG are no longer mandatory since the United States Supreme Court ruled that in United States v. Booker that a federal district judge should not be bound by the Guidelines.  Since the landmark decision in Booker, the Guidelines serve as a starting place and an initial benchmark for the judge.  A federal judge must consult the Guidelines, but need not follow them.  Unless, of course, there is a mandatory minimum penalty in play.  If there is, a federal judge has absolutely no discretion to give a sentence 1 day less than whatever the minimum mandatory sentence calls for.  Needless to say, a federal judge may choose to give more than a minimum mandatory sentence as well.

It’s important to remember that mandatory minimum sentences are set by Congress instead of individual judges in individual cases. In most cases involving this type of sentencing, the judge doesn’t have much discretion and the defendant will need to serve the mandatory minimum term.  All federal sentences are served at approximately 85% with good time credit.

What Crimes Apply to Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

Most of the time, crimes and their attendant punishment are defined by statute. There are certain types of crimes (and associated facts that trigger), however, that are immediately subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

When they were first implemented, these sentences were usually reserved for serious drug crimes (like transportation and possession with the intent to distribute). However, they’ve since expanded into a variety of different crimes, including, but not limited to:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Alien smuggling
  • Sex crimes (like aggravated sexual assault, coercing a minor, and sex trafficking)
  • Armed criminal charges (like possession of a firearm)
  • Child pornography charges
  • Aggravated identity theft

Keep in mind that these are just some of the general categories of crime that can trigger a minimum mandatory sentence.  If you would like a full list of the federal mandatory minimums, review this guide.  Fortunately, there is a limit to what this type of harsh sentencing can apply to. As we will see, however, minimum mandatory sentences often significantly harm the lives of otherwise good people. 

Why Do Mandatory Minimum Sentences Exist? 

Generally speaking, mandatory minimums are a relic of the ‘war on drugs’ period in U.S. history. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, executive and congressional lobbies created laws to crack down on the increase in drug-related crime. When mandatory minimum sentences were created in 1986, they were crafted to punish major drug traffickers.

These severe sentences ended up affecting a lot more than just the top-tier drug kingpins. A report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that high-level drug traffickers make up little more than 10% of federal mandatory minimum sentences nationwide.

The remaining 90% of people sentenced to a minimum mandatory sentence in the United States represents low-level offenders and commonly seen drug addicts who are merely paying for their own drug addiction. There are now a variety of different crimes where mandatory minimums can be applied. So, even though the ‘war on drugs’ is technically over, the blunt legal weapons used to fight it remain. 

Is It Possible to Avoid a Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

There are two ways to avoid mandatory minimum sentences: safety valve, and cooperation (or snitching).  One example is the federal safety valve. Safety valve applies to drug trafficking offenses and permits a federal judge discretion in fashioning an appropriate sentence. However, to apply for it the defendant must meet the five factors under the safety-valve provision:

  • The defendant must have a relatively clean criminal record
  • Non-violent offense and no guns
  • No injury or death occurred in the commission of the offense
  • Not a high-level kingpin or similar leadership position and
  • Before the time of sentencing, the defendant must have truthfully disclosed their own involvement in the offense conduct

The alternative method to pierce the mandatory minimum sentence is with cooperation. This is fully within the discretion of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the federal prosecutor handling your case.  An AUSA can offer you a decreased sentence for your help in prosecuting other people.  Your help must be actionable, that is, it must provide “substantial assistance” to the government in combating other crimes.  It does not have to relate to the instant offense for which you were arrested either.  

It’s important to remember that beating a mandatory minimum sentence requires the help of a good lawyer. As a result, you should try and find a federal criminal defense attorney with a history of successful case resolutions where their clients faced minimum mandatory penalties and were able to avoid them or have their cases dismissed or acquitted at trial. 

Are You Facing a Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentence? Contact David Silldorf Law

Just because you’ve been charged with a serious crime doesn’t mean you’re guilty.  Similarly, it is not an indictment on you as a person.  Good people sometimes make bad choices for really good reasons.  And sometimes good (or innocent) people are accused of crimes they did not commit.That’s why you need a team like David Silldorf Law working for you. We have over forty years of experience in dealing with serious and complicated legal matters that oftentimes involve mandatory minimum exposure for our clients. We even offer a free case evaluation to see whether or not we can help you. Contact us today so we can begin working for you as soon as possible.



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