Federal mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines are as different as apples and oranges, but much harder to tell apart. To help you understand the two federal sentencing systems, FAMM put together the following guide.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws
If an offense carries a mandatory minimum, in most cases judges may not impose a sentence shorter than the number of years chosen by Congress. With two narrow exceptions, federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from considering other relevant factors, such as the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future offense.
The most frequently applied federal mandatory minimums were enacted by Congress in the 1986 and 1988 anti-drug bills. Mandatory minimum drug sentences start at five and 10 years, and are based on the weight of the drug.
Five-year mandatory minimum without parole
|10-year mandatory minimum without parole |
||100 plants or 100 kilos
||1000 plants or 1000 kilos|
||280 grams |
||5 grams (pure)/50 grams mixture
||50 grams (pure)/500 grams (mixture) |
||10 grams (pure)/100 grams (mixture)
||100 grams (pure)/1 kilo (mixture) |
|Other mandatory minimum sentences
|Firearm possessed during a drug offense
||5 years added to drug sentence|
|Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) Felon in possession of a gun with three prior felonies
||15 years |
|Continuing Criminal Enterprise
Download federal sentencing charts
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Federal sentencing guidelines
Congress authorized the creation of the United States Sentencing Commission in 1984 and instructed it to write sentencing “guidelines” for all federal crimes to provide proportional sentences and limit unwarranted sentencing disparity among similar defendants. Originally, sentencing guidelines were also mandatory, meaning judges had strictly limited discretion to use other factors not taken into account in the guidelines to lower the sentence. In 2005, the Supreme Court decision in Booker v. United States transformed the once mandatory guidelines to advisory guidelines, giving courts the ability to sentence within, above, or below the calculated guideline range.
The guidelines direct the sentencing judge to consider various facts about the crime and the defendant. This results in a “guideline range” sentence (for example, 18 to 24 months).
While judges generally impose a sentence within the guideline range, the Supreme Court told courts they must also choose a sentence that is sufficient but no greater than necessary to achieve the purposes of punishment. Judges exercise their discretion by calculating the guideline sentence and then considering other relevant facts to come up with a sentence. Most sentences are within the guidelines but judges also sentence below and must less frequently above them when the facts warrant. Unfortunately, mandatory sentencing laws supersede or “trump” the sentencing guidelines. For example, in drug cases, if the defendant was convicted of a quantity of drugs that triggers a mandatory minimum penalty the judge must impose the mandatory sentence, regardless of the sentencing guidelines. Current federal sentencing guideline tables can be found at the U.S. Sentencing commission’s website, www.ussc.gov.
Can you avoid mandatory minimums?
There are only two ways to avoid receiving a mandatory minimum sentence. First, the defendant may provide “substantial assistance” by turning in others. If the government is satisfied with the cooperation, it can ask the court to impose a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum. Second, some defendants qualify for the “safety valve,” a law Congress passed in 1994 (at FAMM’s urging) to provide relief from mandatory minimums. Click here to download FAMM's fact sheet on the safety valve.
If the judge finds that the defendant is a low-level, nonviolent, first-time offender who did not use violence or possess a gun, and tells the government all about their crime, the defendant qualifies for the safety valve and must be sentenced without the mandatory minimum. The safety valve provides relief for nearly 23 percent of all drug defendants exposed to mandatory minimums. Although the safety valve is a step in the right direction, its eligibility criteria are narrow and thousands of nonviolent drug defendants cannot benefit from it.