You’ve heard the story before: A 20-year-old kid, struggling to afford
rent with his minimum wage job, takes up an offer from a friend of a friend
to help transport “product” from one person to another. He
has always been a good kid, no criminal record, never joined a gang, but
he needs to make ends meet. He agrees to transport the drugs and ultimately
gets arrested in a sting operation. Does this young man sound like a menace
to society? It doesn’t matter; if found guilty of possession with
intent to distribute the drugs, he will be imprisoned until he is 30 years old.
That is because of laws commonly referred to as “mandatory minimums”—one-size-fits-all
prison terms that correspond with specific federal and state drug convictions.
These mandatory minimum sentences are based on the weight and type of
drugs. For example, the young man above who was arrested with just 10
grams of LSD will face a minimum mandatory sentence of ten years in federal
prison (21 U.S. Code § 841). Regardless of his clean record, if he
is found guilty of a charge with a mandatory minimum sentence, that is
the punishment which will be imposed.
Mandatory minimums, and the controversy surrounding them, may sound familiar
due to heightened media coverage on the matter. Most recently, a solidly
bipartisan congressional bill suggested real possibility for legislative
change. These laws are often cited in the ongoing debates about our overcrowded
prisons, as thousands of non-violent drug offenders are serving long prison
sentences despite their relative lack of threat to society at large. But
if you think mandatory minimums are simply a criminal justice, or political
problem, you would be mistaken.
The scary truth about mandatory minimums is that within the blink of an
eye, in the wake of a minor misguided decision, an exercise of poor judgment—these
harsh sentencing laws can destroy your life and your future. Even more,
they can fundamentally disrupt the life of your family. Imagine losing
a son, a husband, a brother, or a father for 10, 20 or even more years.
The impact on the families is just as devastating as the long prison sentences
being imposed. That is what I fight to prevent from happening to my clients everyday.
If you have never been faced with a criminal sentence before, the thought
that there would be mandatory punishments for crimes may sound acceptable
to you. So it is helpful to think about the basics here: The imposition
of a sentence is meant to fit the individual aspects of that particular
case and that particular defendant. Although Federal Law states, “the
court, in determining the particular sentence to be imposed, shall consider
the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics
of the defendant.” [18 U.S. Code § 3553 (a)] Because of mandatory
minimum sentencing laws, that kind of context and discretion that we expect
from a Judge is thrown out the window because they must be compliant with
the (often outrageous) mandatory sentence.
In a U.S. Sentencing Commission Report to Congress, it was stated that
“almost 35% of people receiving a mandatory minimum sentence had
little, or absolutely no criminal record.” It is staggering to consider
that young people like the 20-year-old above could spend the formative
years of their life in prison.
While we wait and hope for action to be taken in congress, there are more
and more non-violent offenders being warehoused in our Federal prisons
every day. I advise my clients to be aware of the very real threats that
they face when charged with a seemingly benign drug offense. With mandatory
minimum laws, there is no slap on the wrist—it literally can be
your life on the line. I work hard to ensure that is not the case, that
my clients do not become a statistic in the ongoing problems of our criminal
justice system, which are sorely in need of reform.