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Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes
Mandatory sentencing requirements under federal law require that convicted offenders serve a predetermined term of imprisonment for certain serious and/or violent crimes, including federal controlled substance (drug) offenses. In fact, there are many federal drug crimes that come with mandatory minimum sentences, including drug trafficking, drug manufacturing, drug distribution and drug importation/exportation, which is why retaining qualified legal counsel when facing federal drug charges is crucial.
If you or someone you love has been charged with drug trafficking or another federal drug crime that carries a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment, it is imperative that you consult a skilled federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights. At Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers, our drug crimes defense attorneys know how devastating the consequences of a drug-related offense can be and we will do everything in our power to help you avoid a conviction.
What is the Purpose of Mandatory Minimums?
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the United States require federal judges to hand down a specified minimum term of imprisonment, typically five or 10 years, based on the criminal charges a prosecutor brings against a defendant in cases that result in a conviction, including a guilty plea. In essence, these federal sentencing laws take away a judge’s ability to take into account the actual circumstances of a criminal offense and the characteristics of an individual defendant when imposing a sentence for a drug crime.
The primary purpose of having mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes is to expedite the sentencing process and minimize the potential for significant variations in sentencing due to judicial discretion, and the main idea behind mandatory minimums was to encourage the federal government to prosecute high-level drug offenders. However, the drug weight thresholds that can trigger a minimum term of imprisonment are so low that the majority of defendants that have been convicted of crimes carrying a specified minimum sentence are low-level offenders.
Mandatory Minimums for Federal Drug Crimes
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the United States were significantly revised under a 1986 bill called the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which was focused on addressing the growing drug abuse problem in the U.S. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act required a minimum sentence of five years in federal prison without parole for drug crimes that involved one gram of LSD, five grams of crack, 10 grams of PCP, 10 grams of methamphetamine, 500 grams of cocaine, 100 grams of heroin, 100 kilograms or 100 plants of marijuana, and other drugs.
The law also required a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison without parole for drug crimes involving 10 grams of LSD, 50 grams of crack, 100 grams of methamphetamine, 100 grams of PCP, one kilogram of heroin, 1,000 kilograms or 1,000 plants of marijuana, and other drugs. Federal drug laws also impose long maximum sentences for drug-related crimes – up to 40 years for some quantities and up to life imprisonment for larger quantities.
There are also mandatory minimum sentences contained in two federal firearms statutes, which can be applied to situations in which a defendant allegedly used or possessed a firearm in furtherance of a federal drug crime.
The First Step Act
In 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act, which was aimed at reducing the federal prison population and improving criminal justice outcomes in the United States. Among other things, the law reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and expanded the “safety valve” relief provision, which gives judges more discretion to impose sentences that are shorter than the statutory minimum in some cases, thereby giving defendants additional opportunities to avoid harsh mandatory minimum penalties.
Under the law, the mandatory minimum sentence for a second violation was reduced from 20 years to 15 years. The law also reduced the sentencing requirements under the “three strikes” rule, which previously imposed a life sentence for three or more convictions for violent crimes or serious felonies. The punishment is now 25 years instead of life.
What Determines Sentencing for a Drug Crime?
Federal drug crimes are found mainly under the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act, and the severity of the punishment ascribed to such crimes depends primarily on the nature of the crime, the amount of the drugs involved, the defendant’s criminal history and any resulting injuries or death, among other factors.
For example, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841, any person who knowingly or intentionally manufactures, distributes, dispenses, or possesses with the intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense, a controlled substance or counterfeit substance faces criminal charges for drug manufacturing, drug trafficking or drug distribution. The punishment for this type of crime involving 100 grams or more of heroin, 500 grams or more of cocaine, 10 grams or more of PCP, one gram or more of LSD, 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, or five grams or more of methamphetamine is between five years and 40 years in federal prison.
If someone is injured or dies as a result of using the substance, the punishment increases to 20 years to life. If the defendant has a prior conviction for a serious drug felony or serious violent felony, the penalty is 10 years to life.
Under that same federal drug law, the punishment for a drug trafficking, drug manufacturing or drug distribution offense that involves one kilogram or more of heroin, five kilograms or more of cocaine, 100 grams or more of PCP, 10 grams or more of LSD, 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, or 50 grams or more of methamphetamine is 10 years to life.
If someone is injured or dies as a result of using the substance, the punishment increases to 20 years to life. If the defendant has a prior conviction for a serious drug felony or serious violent felony, the penalty is 15 years to life, and if the defendant has two prior convictions, the penalty is 25 years.
Relief for Offenders Convicted of Offenses Carrying a Mandatory Minimum
Despite the fact that these minimum sentences for federal drug offenses are mandatory, there are some cases in which a criminal defendant can avoid them. For instance, the prosecutor may elect not to prosecute, the defendant may be relieved of the penalty for providing the government with substantial assistance or may qualify for relief under the so-called “safety valve” provision, or the federal court may circumvent mandatory minimum sentencing requirements if the defendant is a low-level, nonviolent offender with a clean criminal record. In rare cases, the President may even pardon the offender or commute his or her sentence before the minimum term of imprisonment has been served.
How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
Drug crimes are some of the most frequently prosecuted crimes in the United States. Unfortunately, federal judges are bound by law to impose a minimum term of imprisonment upon defendants convicted of certain federal drug crimes, which has been a major contributing factor to mass incarceration in the U.S. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no parole at the federal level, which means convicted offenders generally end up serving the full sentence without the possibility of early release.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, there were 76,538 cases reported to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2019, and 26.1% of those cases carried a mandatory minimum penalty, 72.7% of which were for drug trafficking. That same year, 68.1% of drug offenders were convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum penalty and nearly 45% of those offenders remained subject to the minimum penalty at sentencing.
Being charged with a federal drug crime that carries a mandatory minimum penalty can be frightening and confusing, particularly if you have limited experience with the federal criminal justice system. Federal laws are different from state laws and the penalties for a federal drug offense are far more severe than those associated with a California state drug crime.
The only way to ensure that you get the best possible outcome in your federal drug case is to enlist the help of a trial-tested drug crimes defense lawyer who has a clear understanding of the federal investigative and prosecutorial processes. A good federal defense attorney will guide you through each stage of the legal process and ensure that your rights and best interests are protected every step of the way.
Consult the Defense Team at Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers
Mandatory minimums may have been established as a way for the federal government to deter the most serious types of criminal conduct, but they are used most frequently in drug cases. Unfortunately, as a result of the federal government’s aggressive prosecution of drug crimes, low-level defendants often get swept up in federal investigations and end up facing excessive prison sentences under mandatory minimum sentence laws. These laws also have the undesirable effect of assigning sentencing power to prosecutors rather than judges.
In fact, prosecutors frequently use mandatory minimums as a threat to intimidate defendants into pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, regardless of their guilt or innocence. If you have been arrested for a federal drug crime like drug trafficking or drug importation, or if you are facing charges for a drug-related offense that carries a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment, do not hesitate to speak to a knowledgeable federal criminal defense attorney about the best legal strategy for your case.