“Mandatory Minimums” refer to sentences for particular crimes that judges cannot revise regardless of the culpability or circumstances of the offender.
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished federal parole and the ability of federal judges to suspend sentences. It also established the “three strikes law,” which mandates a life sentence for anyone convicted of a serious felony who already carries two prior felonies, or at least one prior serious drug offense. Since 1984, Congress has increased mandatory minimum sentences specifically for drug offenses. A first-time charge of crack cocaine possession carries a typical mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years. As a result, the number of people in federal prisons for drug offenses has increased from over 4,500 in 1980 to nearly 100,000 in 2012. Non-violent drug offenders now constitute approximately half of those incarcerated in a federal prison.
Mandatory minimums do not only mean that Americans spend more time in prison for lower-level offenses. They also increase the number of individuals pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the risk of substantial prison time. According to one prominent Florida defense attorney, “No matter how strongly defendants believe they are innocent, they could be taking dangerous risks by…turning down a one-year plea bargain when the prosecutor threatens additional charges that carry a mandatory sentence 10 times as long.” Mandatory minimums have given prosecutors power to gain a guilty plea before a defendant ever reaches court.
In addition to obtaining guilty pleas, prosecutors use mandatory minimums as leverage to turn defendants into informants. The use of informants has greatly increased since the beginning of the War on Drugs, with 30% of drug defendants receiving on-the-record sentencing credits for acting as informants. While such information is notoriously unreliable, it is a contributing factor for a majority of federal warrants. Based on informant “snitching,” new defendants are rounded up and given the opportunity to plea bargain. Thus, the prosecution and conviction cycle continues, with the vast majority of defendants never having their case tried.
A key component of the “tough on crime” approach to the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums have contributed to the subversion of the American justice system. The risk of lengthy imprisonment has eclipsed the pursuit of truth as the major determining factor in the conviction process.
There is momentum for reform. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in some non-violent drug cases and announced the Obama administration’s support of sentencing reform.
Reform of mandatory minimums is also occurring at the state level. In 2009 the New York State Legislature repealed almost all mandatory minimum sentencing laws associated with the infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, which created sentences of 15 years to life with no appeal for possession of 4 or more ounces of heroin or cocaine. In 2003, the Michigan legislature repealed almost all mandatory minimums. Rhode Island, Delaware, and Ohio have passed similar measures. The Illinois General Assembly has appointed a Joint Criminal Justice Reform Commission to consider sentencing reform.
Most recently, the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recently passed the Senate Judicial Committee by a margin of 15-5. This bill would reduce mandatory minimums and expand discretion for federal judges. Judicial discretion would help diminish the existing power of prosecutors to determine sentences. Furthermore, this bill would retroactively apply the reduced sentences, offering new opportunity to those already incarcerated for drug offenses. For more information about this bill and how to take action, click here.
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Mandatory Minimums In the News
The New Reformer DAs
The American Prospect – January 2, 2018
How Maryland Came to Repeal Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenders
FAMM – June 2, 2016
Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences unconstitutional say rights advocates
CBC News – January 13, 2016
The government is abusing mandatory minimums: How law enforcement is ruining a generation of Americans
Salon – December 3, 2015
95% of Prosecutors Are White and They Treat Blacks Worse
The Daily Beast – August 17, 2015
Opinion Laura Washington: A prison policy built on second chances
Chicago Sun Times – August 2, 2015
John Oliver just might make you passionately hate mandatory minimum sentences
The Week – July 27, 2015
Blog Posts on Mandatory Minimums
How Prosecutors Are Stuffing Our PrisonsMay 8, 2019
Charged: A Damning Portrait of The Role Prosecutors Play in Mass IncarcerationMay 8, 2019
Kristen’s Law: Life Sentences Won’t Save LivesAugust 2, 2018
Moving Backward with SessionsJanuary 25, 2017