Understanding Mandatory Federal Minimums for Drug Crimes

Federal drug sentencing is simultaneously difficult and unfair. Roughly half of the federal prison population today are drug offenders—most serving mandatory minimum sentences.


Why so many offenders in one crime category?


The answer: the 1982 political declaration of the “War on Drugs.” The Sentencing Project reports that the since this declaration, the number of drug offenders at both the federal and state levels “skyrocketed” from 41,000 to a half million in 2014.


The unchecked mandatory minimums and the abolition of parole in the 1980s are the primary reasons for the accelerated growth of the federal prison population. The growth has been so cancerous that in 2014 the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce “excessive sentences” for 46,000 offenders.


Federal mandatory minimums are ruthless. They do not permit a judge to consider facts which would normally be considered in a fair sentencing process. Federal judges’ hands are tied by statutory minimums and unyielding U.S. Sentencing Guidelines in most drug cases. That’s why many drug offenders, from small-time marijuana dealers to petty crack cocaine users, are serving harsher federal sentences than offenders convicted of sex offenses, terrorism, and other violent crimes such as murder.


What Are Mandatory Minimums?


Mandatory minimums are sentencing laws that require a specific minimum prison term be imposed on offenders convicted of certain federal crimes. They are inflexible. They are specifically tailored to remove a judge’s discretion—the ability to fashion an individualized sentence based upon a broad set of facts—and they have a singular purpose: to ensure that certain offenders, mostly those convicted of drug offenses, spend a specific amount of time in prison.


Mandatory minimums actually have a long history in American criminal justice. In the beginning, however, offenses that carried a mandatory minimum were few in number: they were either severe violent crimes (murder, rape) or crimes against the government (treason, internal revenue collection, counterfeiting, and so on). Many of these mandatory minimums still exist today, but over time through politically inspired wars on crime and drugs more offenses have been added to that original list.


Here is a quick timeline on mandatory minimums:


In the 1950s, Congress tried to enact mandatory minimums for very specific drug crimes (selling heroin to a minor, possession narcotics on a vessel, etc.).


But in 1970, all mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses were repealed.


Then came the 1982 “War on Drugs” which breathed new life into the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme—and mandatory minimums have since been broadly expanded to a host of drug-related offenses.


Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses


Texas Federal Drug Crime Lawyer

While mandatory minimums have been altered over the past few decades, for the most part they still reflect the harsh mindset of the 1980s, with incredibly severe penalties. Sentencing for drug crimes is based on the amount and type of drugs involved, and usually only concerns drug trafficking offenses. The minimum will increase significantly if:


  • Death or serious bodily injury results from the use of the drug
  • The offense is the offender’s second conviction
  • Drugs are imported or exported out of the country


Each type of crime has a specific mandatory minimum sentence, so let’s go over a few choice examples.


If you are convicted for manufacturing, distributing, or possession with the intent to distribute at least 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of cocaine, or 100 kilograms of marijuana, you will have to serve at least 5 years in prison. But only if the offense did not result in any serious injury or bodily harm. If bodily harm or injury was involved, you will have to serve at least 20 years in prison. For a second offense in which bodily harm was involved in both cases, you will have to serve a life sentence.


If you are convicted of manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with the intent to distribute any amount of a Schedule I or II drug, GHB, or synthetic drugs, and death or bodily injury is involved in the use of those drugs, you will have to serve over 20 years in prison.


Remember, these are minimums—and their very harshness requires the assistance of an experienced drug crimes attorney.


These sentences are only the starting point for drug conviction sentencing. Although you will face a minimum jail sentence of 5 years, a judge could sentence you to jail for even more time based on the circumstances. Offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences are also not eligible for parole.


Mandatory minimums require offenders to serve ridiculous sentences based on policies from over 30 years ago. They’re not fair. They need to be changed. And people working towards this.


But none of that will matter if you are charged and convicted right now. Being forced to serve a lengthy minimum sentence can have a profound effect on the rest of your life. If you are charged, you need the strongest defense possible to protect your rights and minimize the damage. Contact a knowledgeable federal defense lawyer today to start crafting your defense strategy.