The judge could only shake her head as she prepared to sentence the defendant. Although he was recently convicted of three armed robberies, the defendant had no previous felony convictions as an adult. However, because he used a gun when committing the crimes, the judge’s hands were tied. Barring a successful appeal, the 24-year-old Utah man will spend the next 57 years behind bars.
Sadly, such stories are not unique to states like Utah. Across the country, defendants are facing what many consider excessive jail time because of federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
Through a series of laws dating back to 1951, Congress has established and updated mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Most of the laws relate to federal drug crimes, although the use of a firearm in a crime also carries a mandatory minimum sentence. (The Comprehensive Crime Control Act established the minimum mandatory sentences for crimes where a gun is used.)
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is tasked with creating uniform sentencing guidelines for all federal crimes. For twenty years it’s “guidelines” were, in fact, rules that had to be strictly followed. Federal judges were not allowed any flexibility to sentence outside of the required ranges. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that such mandatory guidelines were unconstitutional and said they should be “advisory.”
Unfortunately, this flexibility in sentencing does not extend to those crimes with mandatory minimum sentences. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to find the mandatory minimums unconstitutional, despite a U.S. District Judge questioning the severity of a required sentence and even going so far as to request that the President commute the sentence (unsuccessfully).
Recently, a prisoner sentenced to a mandatory 55 years in prison asked the Supreme Court to rethink their previous decision. The Court declined to revisit the issue.
Thus, for the foreseeable future it appears that offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug or weapon-related crimes may not receive the respite many attorneys, judges and scholars believe they deserve.