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The government can reward an offender’s cooperation by moving in district court for a reduction of the offender’s term of imprisonment below whatever term is required by law. In reality, however, critics argue that the value of that leverage is overstated.
The rate of cooperation in cases involving mandatory minimums is comparable to the average rate in all federal cases. Further, only certain defendants in cases involving organized crime—those who are closest to the top of the pyramid—will be able to render substantial assistance. The result is that sentencing reductions go to serious offenders rather than to small-scale underlings.
A financially desperate single mother of four with no criminal history was paid $100 by a complete stranger to mail a package that, unbeknownst to her, contained 232 grams of crack cocaine.
For that act alone, she received a sentence of 10 years in prison even though the sentencing judge felt that this punishment was completely unjust and irrational. In some cases, mandatory minimums have been perceived as being so disproportionate to a person’s culpability that the offender has altogether escaped punishment.
But before such reform can proceed, Congress must ask itself: With respect to each crime, is justice best served by having legislatures assign fixed penalties to that crime?
Or should legislatures leave judges more or less free to tailor sentences to the aggravating and mitigating facts of each criminal case within a defined range?
The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld lengthy mandatory terms of imprisonment over the challenge that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. The question remains, however, whether mandatory minimums are sound criminal justice policy.
Today, public officials on both sides of the aisle support amending the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Instead, Congress forged ahead and preempted the commission by decreeing that offenders should serve defined mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment when convicted of those crimes. District courts may depart downward from those mandatory minimum sentences only in limited circumstances.
For example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 has two exceptions to the mandatory minimum sentencing requirement.
Prosecutors are not trained at sentencing and do not exercise discretion in a transparent way. Critics also claim that prosecutors, who stand to gain professionally from successful convictions under mandatory minimums, do not have sufficient incentive to exercise their discretion responsibly. Indeed, nowhere else in the criminal justice system does the law vest authority in one party to a dispute to decide what should be the appropriate remedy.