Overview of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
If you are accused of a federal crime, it is essential to understand how the federal sentencing process works if you are convicted. Certain violent crimes and drug-related crimes carry mandatory minimums sentences that must be imposed by law and can't be reduced or eliminated.
Mandatory minimum sentences are set by Congress, not federal judges, and require an automatic minimum prison term for certain crimes. Most mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug offenses but are also enacted for other crimes, including certain gun, child pornography, and fraud-related offenses.
A sentence in a federal criminal case is the penalty imposed by a judge on a defendant who was convicted of a crime, but not all sentences involve prison time.
Sometimes, defendants can also be sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine. Often, defendants will be sentenced to serve time in federal prison, report to a probation officer after release, pay government fines, and make restitution to their victims.
The federal court system handles cases filed by federal prosecutors who work for the United States Department of Justice rather than local state prosecutors.
Judges base their sentences of convicted defendants on Federal Sentencing Guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, or both. As the name suggests, the manual “guides” judges toward a sentence based on the facts leading to the conviction.
Unlike mandatory minimums, the sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. In calculating sentences, judges are allowed to go below or above a defendant's guideline sentence depending on the circumstances of the case.
Let's take a closer look at federal mandatory minimum sentencing and provide an overview of what it entails—why these policies exist, how they work, and what criticisms have been levied against them.
A Brief History Behind Federal Mandatory Minimums
The Sentencing Reform Act was passed in 1984 in an attempt to create more uniformity in how federal crimes were sentenced—effectively reducing disparities between sentences invoked for similar crimes in similar circumstances.
In response, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was formed to develop a uniform set of sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. These guidelines are periodically reviewed and updated.
However, the Sentencing Reform Act also created a set of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes.
These mandatory minimums were applied to a wide range of drug-related offenses, including possession and trafficking, as well as many violent crimes like homicide, kidnapping, and robbery.
Additional laws were soon passed to enhance mandatory minimums for drug crimes. A recent report from the USSG shows that more than 75 percent of all mandatory minimum sentences imposed were for drug trafficking convictions.
What Are the Criticisms of Mandatory Minimums?
Although these laws aimed to create uniform sentencing while also cracking down on drug crimes, critics have pointed out that mandatory minimums appear to have the opposite effect.
By taking the power of sentencing out of the hands of judges, prosecutors now can “target” specific individuals with criminal charges that will guarantee mandatory minimums—thereby actually adding to the disparity and unfairness in sentencing, particularly for drug crimes.
Critics argue that it fails to be an effective deterrent, is disproportionately used against minorities, and often leads to increased spending on incarceration rather than prevention or rehabilitation programs.
What are the options for obtaining relief from mandatory minimum sentences? While mandatory minimum sentences can be a scary prospect for those accused of serious crimes, a couple of provisions in the law allow a defendant to get relief from mandatory minimum sentences.
These are the “safety valve” and “substantial assistance” provisions. Let's take a look at them below.
What is Safety Valve?
Codified in Title 18 U.S.C. 3553(f), federal law provides a so-called “safety valve” that permits sentencing courts to bypass the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for certain low-level, non-violent offenders. To qualify for the safety valve, a defendant must meet five specific criteria:
- They must have little or no prior criminal history;
- They must be a non-violent offender;
- They must not be the leader or organizer of a group involved with the crime;
- No death or serious injury must have occurred as a result of the crime; and
- They must have cooperated sufficiently with investigators.
18 U.S.C. 3553 says, “(a) Factors to Be Considered in Imposing a Sentence. The court shall impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary. The court, in determining the particular sentence to be imposed, shall consider (1) the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant; (2) the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense: (3) the kinds of sentences available; (4) the kinds of sentence and the sentencing range established: (5) any pertinent policy statement; (6) the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, and (7) the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.”
What is Substantial Assistance?
This is an incentive-based system whereby prosecutors can recommend reduced sentences in exchange for the defendant's cooperation in providing substantial assistance with investigating or prosecuting other criminals.
This provision allows defendants to reduce their sentence by testifying against co-conspirators or providing information that can lead to the conviction of others.
What is the Impact of Mandatory Minimums on Communities?
Mandatory minimums continue to be a hugely divisive topic among the public and legislatures, significantly impacting both the individuals subject to them and entire communities.
Such legislation has increased incarceration rates in the US, with minorities disproportionately bearing much of that burden.
Additionally, mandatory minimums can lead to several legal issues, including incentives skewed towards taking plea deals instead of going to trial, limiting judicial discretion and oversight, and diminishing family life due to long prison sentence lengths.
Numerous advocacy groups are attempting to raise awareness of these disparities, but up to now, their efforts have had only minimal levels of success.
What Are the Effective Defenses?
Suppose you are accused of a federal crime that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence upon conviction. In that case, your best hope of relief is to work with a federal criminal defense attorney with plenty of experience with federal cases.
A skilled attorney can strategize with you to determine your best line of defense. These may include, but are not limited to:
- Fighting the charge outright, such as of there is ample evidence of your innocence or serious holes in the prosecution's case;
- Negotiating a plea deal, such as pleading guilty to a lesser charge without mandatory minimums;
- Qualifying you for “safety valve” relief; or
- Providing substantial assistance to investigators and prosecutors.
If you have questions or seeking legal representation for a federal criminal case, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. We provide legal representation across the United States for federal criminal matters. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.