Mandatory Sentencing

What is a Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

Some federal crimes have maximum and mandatory minimum penalties allowed under the federal sentencing guidelines. Between the statutory limits are sentencing ranges based on offense points and a defendant's criminal history.

However, mandatory minimums are not always required. For example, the First Step Act, passed by Congress in 2018, gives federal judges the authority to impose a sentence below a mandatory minimum for certain drug offenses.

Further, it provides that a defendant is eligible for this relief from the mandatory minimum (safety valve) depending in part on their criminal history.

Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal crimes requires a specific sentence in a statute.

Congress sets these mandatory minimum sentences, not federal judges. Simply put, by law, they require an automatic minimum prison term for specific crimes. In 2021, almost 30% of all federal cases carried a mandatory minimum penalty. Out of all of them, over 75% were for drug trafficking.

Simply put, mandatory minimum sentences require federal judges to impose a sentence of imprisonment of at least the time specified in a statute. This requirement is often initiated by the type of crime or recidivism by the defendant.

When the Sentencing Guidelines were established, they restricted a judge's sentencing discretion. Still, Congress has added mandatory minimum penalties since then, including minimums for certain drug offenses, child pornography cases, sex offenders, fraud crimes, and firearm offenders.   

Suppose you are accused of a federal crime. In that case, it's essential to understand the federal sentencing process. Some violent and drug-related crimes carry mandatory minimums sentences that must be imposed by law. Let's review further below.

How Does a Federal Judge Determine a Sentence?

The federal court system handles cases filed by federal prosecutors working for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). Judges determine the sentences of convicted defendants on the:

  • Federal sentencing guidelines,
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, or both.

As the name implies, the sentencing guidelines “guide” a judge toward a sentence based on the case details. This means the sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, which makes it different from the required minimums.

When calculating sentences, judges can go below or above a defendant's guideline sentence depending on the circumstances.

The Sentencing Reform Act was passed by the United States Congress in 1984 to create more uniformity in how federal crimes were sentenced. It reduces disparities between sentences for similar crimes in similar circumstances.

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was created to establish a uniform set of sentencing guidelines for federal offenses, which are periodically reviewed and updated. The Sentencing Reform Act created a set of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, such as:

Why Are Mandatory Minimums Controversial?

While these laws were created for uniform sentencing and to target drug offenses, many legal experts claim mandatory minimums have the opposite effect.

Why Are Mandatory Minimums Controversial?
Critics of mandatory minimums say it creates an incentive to charge people with certain offenses.

For example, some say that by taking the sentencing power away from judges, prosecutors can now specifically focus on specific people charged with federal crimes that guarantee mandatory minimums that will increase the disparity and unfairness in sentencing, particularly for federal 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 some legal options for getting relief from mandatory minimum sentences? A few provisions in the law allow a defendant to get relief from mandatory minimum sentences, such as the safety valveandsubstantial assistance.”  

What is the Safety Valve?

Congress created the safety valve for certain drug offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties after some concerns that they could result in severe penalties for less culpable offenders.

The USSC worked with Congress to enact new legislation addressing the impact of mandatory minimum penalties on low-level drug-trafficking offenders. Thus, the first safety valve was introduced as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. 18 U.S.C. 3353(f) list the following factors;

  • Not have more than four criminal history points;
  • Must be a non-violent offender;
  • Must not be a leader involved in the crime;
  • Must have substantially cooperated with investigators;
  • No serious injury or death occurred in the crime.

Simply put, federal law provides this “safety valve” that allows sentencing courts to bypass the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for some low-level and non-violent offenders.

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?

Substantial assistance (USSG 5K1.1) is the process where a criminal defendant assists the government in investigating crimes perpetrated by people other than themselves. Suppose you are arrested for a particular drug crime; federal law enforcement agents may ask you to provide substantial cooperation

Simply put, this is an incentive-based system where prosecutors can recommend reduced sentences in exchange for the defendant's cooperation in providing substantial assistance with investigating or prosecuting other alleged criminals.

It allows defendants to reduce their sentence by testifying against co-conspirators or giving information that can lead to the conviction of others.

  • 5K1.1. says, “Substantial Assistance to Authorities. Upon the government's motion stating that the defendant has provided substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person who has committed an offense, the court may depart from the guidelines.

(a) The court shall determine the appropriate reduction for reasons stated that may include, but are not limited to, consideration of the following:

(1)  the court's evaluation of the significance and usefulness of the defendant's assistance, taking into consideration the government's evaluation of the assistance rendered;

(2) the truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of any information or testimony provided by the defendant;

(3) the nature and extent of the defendant's assistance;

(4) any injury suffered or any danger or risk of injury to the defendant or his family resulting from his assistance;

(5) the timeliness of the defendant's assistance.”

What Are Defenses for Crimes Carrying Mandatory Minimums?

Suppose you are accused of a federal crime with a mandatory minimum sentence if convicted. In that case, you must retain a federal criminal defense attorney with experience in federal cases.

What Are Defenses for Federal Crimes Carrying Mandatory Minimums?
Contact our federal defense attorneys for help.

Depending on the case details, we can strategize with you to determine your best defense strategy, as discussed below.

It may be appropriate to fight the charges at trial. Perhaps there is valid evidence of your innocence or serious weaknesses in the prosecution's case.

Perhaps the best possible outcome is negotiating a plea deal, such as pleading guilty to a lesser charge without mandatory minimums. Maybe you qualify for “safety valve” relief or provided substantial assistance to investigators and prosecutors, as discussed above.

If you seek legal representation for a federal offense, contact our law firm for a free case evaluation and to discuss legal options. We represent clients throughout the United States for federal criminal issues. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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