Mandatory Minimums - Their time is up!

Posted By Law Offices of Robert M. Bernstein || 20-Jan-2016

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.

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