WHY MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES SHOULD BE ABOLISHED FOR ALL STATE & FEDERAL CRIMES

Millions of lives have been ruined by unforgiving federal and state minimum mandatory sentences that have taken discretion away from judges. Minimum mandatory sentences created an imbalance of power between judges and prosecutors in which prosecutors grew more powerful than judges because it was the prosecutors who determined how to file crimes in such a way that mandatory minimum sentences were triggered. 

By threatening to artfully charge crimes in which the judge would have limited discretion, prosecutors routinely force defendants to plead guilty or risk going to trial and possibly losing without hope of a reasonable sentence. Often prosecutors will have no qualms about filing additional criminal counts even when the additional charges are unmerited by the facts and circumstances of the case. This gives prosecutors a unique and powerful strategic advantage in negotiations toward a plea bargain that may be difficult to overcome even when a defendant clearly should not be charged with a crime that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence. 

In federal drug trafficking cases for cocaine, methamphetamine, hydrocodone or marijuana defense counsel looking for the best sentencing outcomes must avoid harsh mandatory minimums, which is often a difficult task due to the strict federal sentencing guidelines. It’s always important for defense counsel to look for Federal or Florida laws that may undercut the application of the mandatory minimum in drug or aggravated battery cases. In Florida the youthful offender act may allow a judge to sentence far under the threshold mandatory minimum sentence that would ordinarily apply.

The best reason to abolish mandatory minimum sentences is that the laws thwart the goals of fairness, justice and equality before the law, since some people will be charged with the mandatory minimum while others aren’t for the same set of facts. When facing a possible minimum mandatory sentence every defendant must make the stark choice of pleading to one crime or going to trial on a far riskier crime. 

One might argue that the mandatory minimum sentences could be made fairer by taking this discretion away from prosecutors. Although it might at first seem much better to have a fair-minded judge not a career prosecutor making this important decision, in time many judges would also abuse this power just as prosecutors have done. Too often judges, just like prosecutors, have been known to twist arms to force a change of plea. Further, traditionally it is prosecutors who determine the appropriate charge that they believe they can prove at trial, because it is the prosecutors who will be stuck trying the case if it’s not filed in a reasonable way.

No, the problem is not who decides which cases should trigger a mandatory minimum sentence; the problem is the mandatory minimum sentences themselves. The very application of such strict sentencing is destructive not only to those unfortunately imprisoned but also corrupts those who enforce and prosecute the laws. This is especially true in nonviolent criminal cases such as drug cases where mandatory minimum sentences are routinely abused by prosecutors to force defendants to serve long sentences instead of receiving help for their drug addictions. 

In Florida criminal laws now make mandatory minimums required for some forms of aggravated assault and other crimes if a firearm was allegedly used though the victim was never harmed. Because every case is different, every sentence should be based on the facts and circumstances of that case, with some leeway based on the defendant’s prior record and the harm, if any, to the victim. Yet too often only the harsh minimum mandatory sentence is all that really matters and that’s why as a civilized society we must abolish all mandatory minimum sentences.