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The Government’s Recent Report on the Effects of Mandatory Minimum Prison Statutes

In our last blog post, we discussed the problems and dangers of government abuse that come with mandatory minimum prison sentences for various crimes.  In this blog post, we will review a recent report from the United States Sentencing Commission which discusses the effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences from a more statistical perspective. This report focuses on federal crimes and federal criminal penalties, but the mechanisms and effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences are similar in the state and federal criminal systems.

In the federal system, using or possessing a firearm while committing a violent offense or certain drug offenses carries significant penalties. In 2016, defendants who were convicted of these 924(c) crimes were sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, on average. Some defendants are subject to a 15 year mandatory minimum prison sentence if they qualify under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Such defendants received just more than 15 years in prison, on average, which suggests the prosecutors were not waiving (i.e. allowing a defendant to plead guilty to a different charge that did not carry the mandatory minimum penalty) these mandatory minimum penalties very often. Defendants facing multiple counts under 924(c) received more than 27 years or 36 years, on average, depending on the number of charges.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences are obviously very harsh. In the federal system, there are very few ways to get out of a mandatory minimum prison sentence if a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted at trial. One way, relevant in certain cases, is what is called the safety valve provision.  Eligibility for the safety valve provision requires a defendant to qualify for several factors.  One is related to the defendant’s criminal history. Any defendant who has a somewhat recent or serious criminal history is not likely to qualify for the safety valve provision.  In fact, even people with more than one recent criminal conviction for minor crimes such as petit theft, possession of marijuana, DUI, etc. are likely to be disqualified from safety valve eligibility.

A prosecutor can always enter into a plea agreement with the defendant whereby she agrees to drop a charge that carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence if the defendant agrees to plead guilty to other charges.  However, if the prosecutor is not willing to do that, there is only one other way for a defendant who pleads guilty or is convicted at trial to get out of a mandatory minimum prison sentence- that defendant must cooperate with the government. This is not available to all defendants. The government has to be interested in a case or investigation related to the defendant in some way. The defendant must have relevant and impactful knowledge of that case or investigation or be willing to work with law enforcement to uncover evidence of criminal activity. The defendant has to provide truthful information or actual cooperation that the government can use to initiate a new case, further an investigation or prosecute another person. If all of those things happen, the government, at its discretion, may file what is know as a 5K motion at or before the defendant’s sentencing hearing. Assuming the judge grants the motion, which is fairly standard, the mandatory minimum prison sentence is removed, and the defendant’s sentencing guidelines become the primary consideration for the judge.

The statistics show that defendants facing a 924(c) charge who take advantage of this option to cooperate with the government receive a prison sentence of 95 months, on average, versus 166 months for similarly situated defendants who cannot or do not cooperate with the government. The difference is much greater for defendants facing multiple 924(c) charges.

Finally, and not surprisingly, the report discusses the greater impact these particular mandatory minimum prison sentences have on black defendants.  In 2016, 52.6% of all defendants who were convicted of these federal firearms charges that carry significant mandatory minimum prison sentences were black. Only 15.7% were white. The percentage of black defendants convicted of multiple 924(c) charges (which carry much higher mandatory minimum penalties) was even higher at 70.5%. Additionally, black defendants received longer prison sentences than similarly situated people of other races. Black defendants convicted of a 924(c) charge received 165 months in prison, on average, versus 140 months for white defendants, on average. That is almost a two year difference.