Mandatory Minimums and Sentencing Reform


Mandatory minimum sentencing laws force judges to hand down long prison sentences based on an prosecutors choice of charges against the defendant. Many states have such laws. Federal mandatory minimum laws enacted in 1986 have led to the federal prison system to become the largest prison system in the U.S. The laws take away from the judge the typical power to account for the individual circumstances of the crime and the defendant when deciding on punishment. Mandatory sentences transfer sentencing power from judges to prosecutors. Prosecutors threaten decade-long mandatory minimum sentences to scare a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence and give up every factual and legal basis for a defense. As a result, 97 percent of state and federal defendants plead guilty.  CJPF is pleased to work with the team that produced the movie, Incarcerating US, to reform mandatory minimums, as well as allies such as FAMM - Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

As Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, CJPF Executive Director Eric E. Sterling helped Congress write the federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug and gun crimes. He and CJPF now oppose mandatory minimum sentences because they are wrong and unjust. Combined with sentencing guidelines, the sentences that are imposed are unjustly long for the conduct and culpability of the defendant. The justice system has been distorted by removing judges from the process of deciding the proper sentence. The elimination of judicial discretion in sentencing has allowed prosecutors to abuse their power. Prosecutors negotiate more generously with defendants who can reveal information about other defendants or the location of the hidden proceeds of the crimes. Higher-level offenders manipulate the system by trading what they know for a shorter sentence than those that are imposed on lower-level offenders.


Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are statutes that require judges to sentence offenders to a specified minimum prison term for a specific crime-- for example, a minimum 10 year sentence for possession of 5 grams of "pure" methamphetamine, only a 5-day supply for a heavy user (see a complete list of federal mandatory minimums here). Mandatory minimums for drug offenses are often triggered by the weight of the drugs, as well as the type of offense. Unlike the complementary system of sentencing guidelines, which provide a suggested sentence range after a computation of circumstances that judges can deviate from in response to all the circumstances, mandatory minimum laws allow no room for judicial discretion. As a result, tens of thousands of low-level state and federal defendants face harsh punishments that are denounced even by the judges forced to impose them.

A BLUNT tool of the drug war

Congress and the states have implemented mandatory minimums for a variety of offenses, but they are used especially frequently in drug cases. Federal drug cases usually involve more than one defendant and are often charged as conspiracies. Because in conspiracies, drug-related mandatory minimum punishments are based on the total weight of drugs of all the transactions the conspiracy is alleged to have carried out, and not on the offender’s actual level of involvement, a single-trip drug courier often faces the same penalty as the ringleader who arranged all the shipments of the organization. Not only are the terms of imprisonment much too high, but Congress also set the drug weight thresholds too low to identify true high-level offenders that should be the target of federal investigation. For methamphetamine, offenders face a minimum five-year sentence for possession of five grams, the weight of five Sweet-n-Low(R)  packets, when a heavy user might go through a gram in a day. A genuine high-level trafficker arranges multiple shipments of hundreds of kilograms.

Although Congress passed mandatory minimum laws with the directive to the Justice Department to crack down on drug "kingpins," the US Sentencing Commission reported in 2011 that “high-level” suppliers or importers made up only 11% of federal defendants sentenced to mandatory minimums. The rest of federal defendants were couriers, low-level dealers, and even marginally-involved friends and family of the accused.

A Waste of Money

Excessively long sentences are not only unjust but extremely wasteful. Incarcerating one person for a single year costs between $15,000 and $60,000. The federal prison budget has risen from less than $3.7 billion in 2000 and less than $5 billion in 2006 to $7.3 billion in 2016. This exceeds the $5.5 billion allocated by the federal government to care for all the homeless people in the U.S. (It was estimated that on a January night in 2014 there were more than half a million homeless people in America's shelters and streets.)


Mandatory minimum sentences have persisted for decades despite opposition by citizens and judges. But over the last few years, South Carolina and Rhode Island have eliminated at least some drug mandatory minimums completely, presenting a model for federal reform. CJPF has been pushing for just such federal progress: In the summer of 2015, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation Executive Director Eric Sterling called on President Obama to address mandatory minimums during his remaining months in office. His advocacy was inadequate and no legislation was enacted before Congress adjourned in 2016. As of the spring of 2017, Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who was the lead sponsor of the mandatory minimum reform legislation in the last Congress, has not introduced a bill.  New Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions has been an advocate of mandatory minimum sentences, and brought into senior leadership other prosecutors who share his view.

CJPF has been speaking out against mandatory minimums since our inception in 1989. 

Testimony Regarding An Act to Amend the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, by Eric E. Sterling. Eric. E. Sterling was called to testify before the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs of the Canadian Senate. This testimony on mandatory minimums, drug treatment courts, cannabis policy, and public perception of crime was delivered remotely on October 28, 2009.

The Failed Politics of Sentencing Reform: Seriously Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy, by Eric E. Sterling. This brief calling for an end to mandatory minimum sentences was presented at the United States Capitol on June 24, 2009.

Letters From Professors of Criminology, Sociology, Public Policy, and Law to the Leadership of the Senate and House Committees on the Judiciary. This petition called on the leaders of the Congressional Committees on the Judiciary to repeal the mandatory minimum laws imposed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Signed by Eric. E. Sterling, 2006.

Undo This Legacy of Len Bias's Death, by Eric E. Sterling. This op-ed piece was printed in the Washington Post, the Sacramento Bee, Hartford Courant, Juneau Empire and The Spokesman Review. In this piece Eric E. Sterling calls for the repeal of mandatory minimums passed in response to Bias's death. June 17, 2006. 

Justice Roundtable Asks Congress to Address the Disparity in Crack and Powder Cocaine Mandatory Minimums. Eric E. Sterling spoke at the Rayburn House Office Building at the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the Justice Roundtable, a coalition of national criminal justice reform organizations, calling for an end to the disparate mandatory minimum sentences assigned to crack and powder cocaine. February 16, 2006.

Mistake with Drug Sentencing Guidelines Need to be Resolved, by Eric E. Sterling. The Greensboro, North Carolina News Record published this op-ed about the problems of mandatory minimum sentencing on the front page of its opinion section. April 3, 2005.

Sentencing is Perverse in the War on Drugs, by Eric. E. Sterling. This op-ed condemning the unequal application of justice in the War on Drugs appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 30, 2000.

The Sentencing Boomerang: Drug Prohibition Politics and Reform, by Eric E. Sterling. This article in the Villanova University Law Review argues for an end to mandatory minimum sentences. January 1, 1999.