Changes to Mandatory Minimum Laws
A defendant in federal court facing a mandatory minimum needs the best defense he can get. An experienced defense lawyer can turn the tables on the prosecution in various ways.
Why have the rules changed for the worst?
On May 10, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed the United States Attorney’s Office’s policy regarding charging federal offenses and the position that Assistant United States Attorney must take relative to sentencing. The rules have changed for the worst in the United States District Court in Michigan and throughout the United States. There is talk about the Trump Administration working on reforming the federal criminal justice system, including mandatory minimum laws.
Whenever discretion is removed and replaced with policy, dissimilar cases and defendants all start being treated the same. This is an awful policy on a federal level relative to criminal prosecutions because all defendants are not alike, and every case is unique. The government attorneys prosecuting federal offenses are not simpletons; they are intelligent, aggressive prosecutors. They can exercise discretion and ensure fairness relative to charging and plea negotiations. Having a policy that basically forces prosecutors to charge the most severe charge possible and seek mandatory minimum sentences strips U.S. Attorney’s discretion to modify charges and plea bargains when appropriate. The memorandum purports to give discretion, but only if approved by a supervisor and only in extraordinary cases. This exception is toothless, and prosecutors will rarely use it.
Mandatory Minimums are Unjust
Mandatory minimums are often seen as unfair for several reasons:
- They can lead to disproportionately harsh sentences: Mandatory minimums remove the judges’ ability to consider a case’s unique circumstances and the offender’s background. This means that a person who committed a minor offense but fell under the mandatory minimum sentencing guideline may receive a disproportionately harsh sentence that does not fit the crime.
- They can perpetuate systemic biases: Mandatory minimums have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on minorities and low-income communities, perpetuating systemic biases in the criminal justice system. These communities are more likely to be subject to harsher sentencing guidelines due to systemic issues such as racial profiling and socioeconomic disparities.
- They can limit judicial discretion: Mandatory minimums restrict the discretion of judges to tailor a sentence that is appropriate for the specific offender and the specific crime. This means that judges cannot consider factors such as the offender’s criminal history, their likelihood of reoffending, or any mitigating circumstances that may justify a lighter sentence.
Practical and Tragic Examples of Excessive Sentences
In a case recently published on CNN Politics, a federal judge was very upset that he had no alternative but to send a grandmother who was a drug addict to prison for five years over an amount of drugs equal in size to a packet of sugar. United States District Judge Mark Bennett made it clear that he thought the 5-year mandatory minimum sentence, as required by law, was for an elderly defendant, Susan Rice, who got caught up in a drug conspiracy in Sioux City, Iowa. The judge clarified that his opinion of Ms. Rice was that she was a “low-level addict.” The article states, “It is not the first time he has felt this way. Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust — but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on the defendant’s individual circumstances.”
The judge clarified his feelings when he stated from the bench, “too often, low-level, nonviolent drug addicts dealing with feeding their habit end up being sentenced like drug kingpins.” Ultimately, he feels that the mandatory minimum sometimes results in a “miscarriage of justice.”
Judicial Discretion is Vital to a Fair Legal System
Judicial discretion is a crucial component of a fair legal system because it allows judges to use their knowledge, experience, and judgment to make individualized and appropriate decisions. By giving judges the authority to consider the specific circumstances of each case, including the offender’s background and the nature of the crime, judicial discretion ensures that sentences are proportionate to the severity of the offense and the offender’s level of culpability. This leads to more just outcomes and helps prevent overly harsh sentences that can exacerbate existing inequalities and perpetuate systemic biases. Additionally, judicial discretion can promote public trust in the legal system by demonstrating that the law is applied fairly and equitably, rather than through a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach. If there is a valid reason why a mandatory minimum law should not apply to a particular defendant, their only hope for a fair sentence is if the judge has the discretion to depart below the minimum allowed sentence.
What to do about mandatory minimum sentences in the United States District Court in Michigan?
The United States Attorney’s Office in Detroit is widely known to be aggressive and zealous in prosecuting those charged with federal criminal offenses within that office’s jurisdiction. Given the Attorney General’s new position on charging and sentencing and mandatory minimum laws, the stakes are higher than ever when an ongoing federal investigation exists. An aggressive, proactive, and effective federal criminal defense lawyer gives a suspect or defendant the best possible chance of facing the lowest reasonable charge and avoiding a mandatory minimum when possible.
If you are under investigation by law enforcement or charged with a federal crime in the United States District Court in Michigan, call LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. We will take the time to talk with you, answer your questions, address your concerns, and work with you to find a winning strategy.
Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation or complete an online Request for Assistance Form. We will contact you promptly and find a way to help you.