In the coming weeks and months, lawmakers in Senate will reportedly be considering a bill examining mandatory minimum sentences. The latter, as some of our readers may know, are minimum court decisions which limit judicial discretion regarding sentencing, as a matter of law. At the federal level, mandatory minimum sentences are governed by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Mandatory minimum sentences were initially seen as being critical in the war on drugs, but nowadays there is concern that mandatory sentences may have unintended consequences, such as putting the wrong offenders in prison for too long. An example of this would be crack cocaine offenders, who—until 2010—were hit with comparatively much harsher sentences than those convicted for using powder cocaine. President Obama corrected that situation with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but many remain incarcerated under the old sentencing rules.
Among the possibilities for the legislation is early release for nonviolent inmates, giving judges more discretion, retroactive application of new sentencing standards, and reducing minimum sentences by half. Various other proposals are on the table as well, including a federal law that enhances sentences upon a third felony conviction.
Some proposals have been criticized by prosecutors, who are concerned that changes to the system could reduce the deterrent effect of the guidelines and limit the ability of prosecutors to give convicts what they deserve. It remains to be seen how everything hashes out legislatively, but we will keep our readers updated.
Having an experienced defense attorney during the sentencing process is critical. A good attorney can sometime help persuade a judge to impose a more lenient sentence. Post-sentencing, an attorney can also help in filing an appeal.
Source: NPR, “How Long Is Too Long? Congress Revisits Mandatory Sentences,” Liz Halloran, January 9, 2014.