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What Are Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws set minimum sentences for certain crimes that judges cannot lower, even for extenuating circumstances. The most common of these laws deal with drug offenses and set mandatory minimum sentences for possession of a drug over a certain amount.

How Sentencing Generally Works

As a general rule, a sentencing judge decides your punishment shortly after you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial. Punishments are intended to be proportional to the crime, so state and federal sentencing guidelines suggest a range of sentences appropriate for various types of crimes. Judges need not adhere strictly to these guidelines, but can consider any mitigating or aggravating circumstances related to your specific crime, such as:

  • Whether you were the principal offender or just an accessory
  • Whether you hurt someone or actively tried to avoid hurting anyone
  • Your mental state at the time of the crime

Your final sentence may be within the suggested range but could also be shorter or longer, at the judge's discretion.

How Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws Affect Your Sentence

When your crime is subject to a mandatory minimum sentencing law, the judge has much less discretion in setting your punishment. If you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial, you will get at least the minimum sentence set by law. The judge is not permitted to impose a shorter sentence. Even if there are facts that would normally provide a reason for leniency, the judge must ignore those factors. On the other hand, the judge may often consider aggravating factors and impose a harsher sentence than the minimum.

The most common examples of mandatory minimum sentencing are the federal drug laws for possession of certain amounts of illegal drugs. For example, getting caught with one gram of LSD or 100 grams of heroin means you will spend at least five years in prison.

Three-strikes laws are another form of mandatory minimum sentencing. Under these laws, you will face a specific minimum sentence if you are convicted of a third felony. Under federal law, this could be life in prison without parole if your third felony, and at least one previous felony, were violent crimes. Many states have similar laws, although the penalties may differ.