Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

What Federal Crimes Are Subject To Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?

Mandatory minimum sentences are those that, by law, require a federal sentence of "not less than" a specified amount of time. These mandatory sentences remove discretion from the sentencing judge and often result in harsh penalties for some crimes.

Mandatory minimums apply to, among others:

  • Drug crimes, including possession with intent and drug trafficking
  • Sex crimes, including aggravated sexual assault, sex trafficking, enticing or coercing a minor into prostitution,
  • Armed career criminals, as well as a felon in possession of a firearm
  • Weapons or firearms offenses when used in furtherance of a federal crime or in drug trafficking
  • Offenses involving child pornography including producing, possessing or distribution
  • Aggravated identity theft
  • Violation of the "Three Strikes" law

If you are under investigation for a federal crime, it is important to involve a defense attorney as early as possible. A federal defense attorney may be able to work out a deal prior to an indictment; once you have been indicted it may be difficult to have the charges against you reduced to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence.

Is There Any Way To Avoid A Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

There are exceptions that allow sentencing below mandatory minimums:

  • Federal safety valve. Some minor drug offenses have a safety valve feature that allows the judge to dictate a sentence below a mandatory minimum level. To be eligible for the safety valve, you must:
    • Have a clean criminal record (only 1 point)
    • Not have used violence or a threat of violence in the charged offense,
    • Not have injured or killed anyone during the commission of the charged offense
    • Not be a kingpin or organizer of a conspiracy
    • Come clean to the prosecutor
  • Substantial assistance. The sentencing judge is allowed to deviate below a mandatory minimum if you have cooperated with the investigation or prosecution of another person. This departure from mandatory minimums applies to all federal crimes, not just drug crimes like the safety valve.

Too many people are sentenced to years in federal prison because of mandatory minimums. These exceptions are narrow and are at discretion of the sentencing judge.

The Problem With Mandatory Minimums

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, more than half of federal inmates are behind bars for non-violent drug offenses. Mandatory sentences do little to actually protect the public and very often over-punish individuals for certain crimes. With taxpayers footing an annual $60 million bill for prison services, the time for reform is now. There should be no "one-size-fits-all" prison sentence for specific crimes.

Mandatory Minimums As Coercive

False accusations of criminal acts happen all too frequently. Likely just as often, individuals are overcharged based on the actual facts surrounding their case. Unfortunately, the application of mandatory minimums has led innocent people to plead guilty out of fear of a lengthy sentence that would be required because of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the Department of Justice shifting its prosecution policies away from charges that would trigger mandatory minimums. Although this is a step in the right direction, it relies heavily on the prosecutor to choose a lesser offense and provides no real guarantee of protection from mandatory sentencing yet.

U.S. vs. J.R.
Charge: Mail Fraud (9 Counts), Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud
Facing: Three years in prison
Result: One year, One day

Our client was convicted of nine counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The government alleged that our client fraudulently obtained more than $115,000 from her former employer. At the sentencing hearing, the Judge granted our motion for a downward departure, sentencing our client to one year and one day. The government had asked the judge to sentence our client to several years.