Commonly Asked Questions About Mandatory Minimum Sentences

In the 1970s and ’80s, when fear of drug crime spiked, Congress turned to mandatory minimum sentences to combat it. These laws shackle sentencing judges, prohibiting them from considering a person’s history or culpability and setting harsh penalties for certain crimes. As a result, they increase incarceration rates, and minorities bear a disproportionate burden of that spike.

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What are they?

A sentence is an official sanction imposed by a judge following a conviction. Defendants are often required to serve time in prison, report to probation officers after release, pay government fines, and make restitution to victims. Defendants can also be ordered to serve community service, have their licenses suspended, or be forced to undergo treatment.

Judges must impose a specified time of incarceration under mandatory minimum sentences for a certain crime, usually a severe offense. They essentially take away judges’ discretion to punish offenders based on the unique circumstances surrounding each case and the offender’s history.

Prosecutors use the threat of mandatory minimums as a tool to push defendants into plea bargaining, even for crimes they didn’t commit. This practice is a major reason the prison population has skyrocketed recently. As a result, incarceration rates increase far more than crime rates, shifting power from judges to prosecutors. In Nebraska, a minimum term is necessary for all offenses higher than a Class II felony. Additionally, Class W misdemeanors (such as charges of driving while intoxicated) have minimum and maximum punishments. A criminal attorney may provide ways to avoid the mandatory minimum sentences in Nebraska if you are accused of a federal crime. 

How do they work?

Criminal laws called mandatory minimums call for a federal judge to determine a precise jail term for persons found guilty of specific offenses. This law eliminates judges’ sentencing discretion and can result in harsh penalties for certain crimes. A federal criminal sentence can include a combination of punishments, including prison time, probation, and fines. Many sentences involve prison time, but not all do. For example, defendants can also be ordered to serve community service or pay restitution to their victims.

Supporters of mandatory minimums argue that these laws are necessary to create uniformity in the courtroom and crack down on drug crime. However, they have largely failed to achieve these goals and are contributing to the problem of over-incarceration in our country. They are disproportionately used against minorities and fail to deter crime. They also over-punish people and drive up costs for taxpayers. As a result, many of those convicted of federal crimes face long sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

What are their consequences?

After decades of draconian drug mandatory minimum sentences, there is no evidence that these laws have impacted crime rates or the quantity or purity of drugs in the market. Instead, they have done three things: reallocated power from judges to prosecutors, limited judicial discretion, and exacerbated racial disparities. Prosecutors can leverage the threat of mandatory minimum sentences to persuade defendants to take plea bargains for lesser offenses. It has the effect of limiting judicial discretion and depriving people of their right to trial by jury.

It is a significant problem because it allows prosecutors to target the least culpable participants in a criminal conspiracy while rewarding the most guilty for collaborating by bludgeoning them with harsh mandatory minimum sentences. It creates what is known as the Cooperation Paradox: the less culpable “little fish” are yoked with these severe punishments while the more culpable “big fish” use their knowledge to leverage into lenient plea deals.

How do they affect communities?

Over 150 mandatory minimums exist in federal criminal law. While some are rarely used, the ones that are (primarily related to drug crimes) have profoundly damaging effects on individuals and families. They reduce judicial discretion and accountability, cause prosecutors to incentivize defendants to take plea bargains, exacerbate racial disparities, and lead to long sentences that diminish family life. Incarceration rates have soared in recent decades, and the increase can be largely attributed to mandatory drug minimums. These laws demand stiff penalties, regardless of extenuating circumstances, which has led to disproportionately high sentences for minorities.

Furthermore, the length of the prison sentence limits a defendant’s ability to earn parole and return to their communities after release. It prevents them from supporting their children and engaging in employment, leading to poverty and a lack of family stability. The First Step Act is a small step in the right direction, but more must be done to address this problem.