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Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 04:49 pm
Mandatory minimum sentences are some of the most controversial aspects of our criminal justice system today. They require judges to hand down a minimum prison term for certain federal and state crimes, regardless of any mitigating factors. Supporters argue mandatory minimums promote uniformity and deliver well-deserved punishment. But critics counter they often produce unjust sentences, strip away judicial discretion, and disproportionately impact minorities.
As a defense lawyer, I’ve seen first-hand how inflexible mandatory minimums can be. But they aren’t always as harsh as many believe. It pays to understand how they work so you can get the fairest outcome possible if facing charges carrying a mandatory minimum term.
There are around 200 federal crimes that require mandatory minimum sentences today. Some of the most common include:
At the state level, mandatory minimums often apply to drunk driving, assault, robbery, rape, drug trafficking, and gun crimes as well. The specific laws vary widely between states though.
The length of mandatory minimum sentences depends on the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and other factors laid out in sentencing statutes and guidelines. For example, federal mandatory minimums for drug crimes hinge on the type and weight of the drugs involved. Here are some examples:
Mandatory minimums can also “stack,” meaning multiple mandatory counts in an indictment can add up to extremely long sentences. For instance, a defendant facing three counts carrying 5-year minimums would face 15 years total behind bars.
While mandatory minimum sentences are strict, there are a few ways they can be reduced in federal cases:
Defendants who provide “substantial assistance” to prosecutors, like testifying against co-defendants, can qualify for a motion from the government requesting a reduced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). This allows the judge to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum to reflect the assistance given.
The “safety valve” provision in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) allows sentences below mandatory minimums for certain non-violent, first-time drug offenders who played minor roles and cooperated fully with the government. However, it only applies to sentences under 10 years, and excludes the most serious drug crimes.
The “Drugs Minus Two” Amendment lowered mandatory minimums by two levels under the federal sentencing guidelines. However, unlike the provisions above, judges cannot go below the minimums in the statute. So it only helps in cases where the guidelines suggest a higher minimum than the law itself.
States have far more leeway to create exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences, but the options vary. For example, many states allow sentences below mandatory minimums if defendants plead guilty and waive trial rights. Prosecutors can also agree to reduce or dismiss charges carrying mandatory minimums through plea bargaining.
Facing federal charges with stiff mandatory minimum sentences is scary. But an experienced defense lawyer can thoroughly evaluate the options and fight to reduce your exposure to these harsh punishments. I have helped many clients avoid mandatory minimums through strategies like substantial assistance motions, plea negotiations, and sentencing advocacy.
Don’t leave your fate to chance. Contact me for a free case evaluation and learn how I can help minimize the penalties you face in your federal criminal matter.
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