Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require harsh, automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain federal and state crimes. These inflexible, "one-size-fits-all" sentencing laws are popular with Congress and state lawmakers because they seem like a quick fix solution for crime. But mandatory minimums undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the seriousness of their offense. Because of mandatory sentencing laws, the population of federal and state prisons has soared, resulting in exhorbitant costs to taxpayers and excessively long prison sentences for too many people in the United States.
Under federal law, most mandatory minimums apply to drug offenses, but Congress has enacted them for other crimes, including certain gun, pornography, and economic crimes. Click here for lists of select federal mandatory minimums. Many states also have mandatory sentencing laws. Click here to visit FAMM's state map, and click the state you're interested in to read more about its laws.
Why should mandatory minimums be changed
Sentences should be individualized. The way a defendant is charged determines if the sentence is mandatory. The judge cannot lower a mandatory sentence because of the circumstances of the case or a person’s role, motivation, or likelihood of repeating the crime.
Mandatory minimums disrupt the balance of justice. Mandatory minimums shift control over sentencing to prosecutors. Prosecutors determine the charge, which can require a mandatory sentence; whether the case is tried in state or federal court; and whether the defendant has provided enough useful information to be given reduced sentence for cooperation.
Mandatory minimums are exhorbitantly expensive to taxpayers. It costs $28,000 annually to incarcerate each federal prisoner -- that's more than the average American makes each year. (The average median income in the United States was $26,364 in 2010.) In comparison, outpatient drug treatment is $1,800 annually and $6,800 yearly for residential drug treatment programs.
Public support for rigid sentencing laws has waned. A majority of adults favor elimination of mandatory sentencing laws and allowing judges to choose the appropriate sentence.
Mandatory minimums treat low-level, nonviolent offenders the worst. Low-level defendants charged under mandatory minimums – drug couriers, addicts or those on the periphery of the drug trade, like spouses – often have no information to give to prosecutors for a sentence reduction.
How should mandatory minimums be changed?
Give judges discretion to fit the punishment to the individual. Judges – not legislators, prosecutors, or defense attorneys – should determine appropriate sentences based on the facts of each case they consider. To insure a judge’s decision will meet standards for appropriate punishment, the prosecutor or the defendant can appeal the judge’s sentence. This safeguard, and sentencing guidelines, prevent judges from delivering sentences that are too soft or too tough.
Allow individualized sentencing. Federally and in many states, sentencing guideline systems are in place to guide the courts and help prevent wildly disparate sentences for similar crimes, while allowing for sentence adjustments based on culpability. Although not perfect, guidelines do a better job of ensuring that the punishment fits the crime and the defendant.