Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Guidelines


Mandatory minimum sentences are the criminal sentence floors set by statute. Judges do not have discretion to impose a sentence below the statutory mandatory minimum sentence when a person is convicted of the crime to which the mandatory minimum applies. If sentencing guideline calculations result in a recommended sentence below the mandatory minimum, the statutory mandatory minimum must still be imposed, with two limited exceptions.


  • States within the U.S. began adopting mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the 1970s in response to public perception that judges were too lenient in sentencing persons convicted of crimes, particularly drug crimes. Congress adopted its first national mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the 1950s. However, federal mandatory minimum sentences particularly for drug crimes increased dramatically in the 1980s as a pivotal element of the enforcement program referred to as the "war on drugs."


  • Mandatory minimum sentences remove discretion from trial judges to consider individualized factors relative to a defendant's case. Mandatory minimums reflect a punitive theory of sentencing. Mandatory minimums take precedence over sentencing guideline calculations; if the sentencing guidelines result in a recommended sentence lower than the statutory minimum, the statutory minimum must be applied unless one of two narrow exceptions is met.


  • Mandatory minimum sentences are one of the factors which contributes to the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A 1992 study by the Federal Judicial Center concluded that the net result of mandatory minimum sentences is longer prison sentences generally, as well as less difference in sentence lengths between drug-dealing kingpins and persons who played more minor roles in drug-dealing hierarchies.


  • Mandatory minimum sentences have been the focal point for public controversy and debate regarding the need for, and effectiveness of, the war on drugs. Advocates point to the certainty and incapacitation created by mandatory minimum sentences, and aver that this certainty leads to deterrence. Critics point to the billowing costs of expanding jail capacity, and inequities which result on a case-by-case basis when, for example, a young person with negligible criminal history faces a long mandatory minimum incarcerative sentence.


  • A 2009 report of the United States Sentencing Commission determined that there are mandatory minimum sentences in 171 separate federal crimes statutes. In addition to most drug offenses, there are mandatory minimum sentences for food stamps violations, harboring illegal aliens, and embezzlement or fraud by a bank officer, as well as more than 100 other crimes. This includes several crimes for which there is a mandatory sentence of death or life imprisonment, including killing a federal official or using a chemical weapon to kill a person.


  • Two statutory exceptions allow federal judges to circumvent statutory mandatory minimums: The "substantial assistance" provision, 18 U.S.C. Section 3553(e) and the "safety valve" provision, 18 U.S.C. Section 3553(f). The former permits federal judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory statutory minimum on motion of the prosecution where the defendant has provided substantial assistance in the prosecution of another individual. The latter allows federal judges to ignore the mandatory minimum sentence requirements where the defendant has virtually no criminal history and had minor involvement in a drug matter. A 2009 report of the U.S. Sentencing Commission determined that one of these two exceptions was applied in approximately 35% of drug convictions that would have otherwise resulted in application of a mandatory minimum sentence.


  • Photo Credit Cindy Hill
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