As we have discussed several times on this site in the past, minimum mandatory sentences are among the most counterproductive and just plain stupid ideas our government has come up with, and that is saying a lot given the state of our government these days. Among other problems, they are basically laws created by people who have no idea about the details of the particular cases, and they take the discretion away from the people who know the facts of the case the most and the circumstances of the parties the most. They also give tremendous power to the police and the prosecutor that can be abused to leverage pleas and harsh sentences in cases and against people who do not deserve them.
For instance, if a person is charged with committing certain crimes in Florida and fires a gun in the process, without hitting or injuring anyone, that person can face a minimum mandatory sentence of twenty years in prison. There are numerous cases, perhaps most cases, involving conflicts between people where there is a real gray area as to whether the suspect is guilty of a crime, fired a gun in self defense or did nothing wrong at all. Even where a person is guuilty of such a crime, there are often mitigating factors in the case that make it very clear that twenty years is way too harsh of a sentence. However, in these cases, the state can charge the twenty year mandatory minimum crime and because that gives the state so much leverage, it forces the defendant to agree to a deal and enter a plea, often receiving a lighter sentence. The state can always waive the minimum mandatory sentence. So, in many cases where the defendant has a valid self defense claim or other defense, the defendant may end up taking a year or two in prison or probation and become a convicted felon even though he/she may not be guilty. But because you never know what a jury would do, and you do know there is a twenty year mandatory minimum penalty if the jury finds you guilty, it is way too risky to fight it in court. In that sense, which is fairly common, the mandatory minimum law severely compromises, or even eliminates, a person’s constitutional right to trial.
Another case we see often where this is a serious problem is in prescription pill cases. The laws in Florida are very harsh for possession of pills such as Hydrocodone without a prescription. It does not take many pills to qualify for a trafficking charge. The low level trafficking charges come with a three year mandatory minimum prison sentence. And the mandatory minimum prison sentences go up from there. There are many people out there who have pain pills without a prescription who are not criminals and do not deserve a felony conviction and years in prison. In many cases, the only difference between a drug trafficker (under Florida law) and a law-abiding person with a legitimate medical prescription is being born to a rich family or having a job that offers decent health insurance. In other words, a lot of people have a need for prescription drugs due to auto accidents, workplace injuries and other problems. Not everyone has health insurance to pay for those drugs. However, because of the Florida drug laws and mandatory minimum prison laws, the less fortunate go to prison while the more fortunate are popping pills with impunity.
Those are just two of many examples where mandatory minimum penalty laws cause serious problems for defendants who want to assert their rights and want a fair day in court.