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U.S. Sentencing Commission Releases Study on Mandatory Minimum Penalties

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) has released its latest study on mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system.   Its full report can be found here: https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2017/20170711_Mand-Min.pdf. The Commission has promised to provide future publications focusing on mandatory minimum penalties for specific offense types.

Mandatory minimum penalties are minimum terms of imprisonment that are required by statute when an offender is convicted of certain federal offenses.  In other words, when a person is convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum, the judge must sentence the person to at least the mandatory minimum period of incarceration.  At present, there are over 90,000 inmates in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum.

Mandatory minimum penalties vary in length, ranging from two years to life in prison.  The length of the mandatory minimum depends on the offense type and certain other specified criteria.  Most convictions under statutes requiring mandatory minimums relate to identity theft, drug trafficking, gun offenses, and child sex offenses.  For example:

  • Aggravated identity theft requires a two-year mandatory minimum penalty, to be imposed consecutively to any other sentence.


  • About two-thirds of the cases carrying mandatory minimums are drug cases.  A defendant will receive a five-year mandatory minimum if convicted of trafficking 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of powder cocaine, 28 grams of crack cocaine, 100 kilograms of marijuana, 5 grams of pure methamphetamine (or “ice”), or 50 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine.  The mandatory minimum goes to 10 years when the drug quantity increases to 1 kilogram of heroin, five kilograms of powder cocaine, 280 grams of crack, 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, 50 grams of pure methamphetamine, or 500 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine.  The mandatory minimums can increase even higher depending on a defendant’s criminal history.


  • Mandatory minimum penalties for firearm offenses are also severe.  18 U.S.C. 924(c) prohibits using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to, or possessing a firearm in furtherance of, a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime.  Typically, these offenses carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence in addition to any other sentence imposed for the underlying drug crime.  The penalty increases to seven years if the firearm was brandished, and ten years if it was discharged.  In many cases, a defendant can be subject to a mandatory minimum on a drug trafficking charge, plus a mandatory minimum on a 924(c) charge.    In other cases, a person will be subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum penalty if he is a felon in possession of a firearm and has at least three prior convictions for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.  18 U.S.C. 922(g).


  • Sexual abuse offenses also commonly carry mandatory minimums, which range in severity from ten years to life, depending on the offense.


Hispanics represented the largest group of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty (40.4%).  But White offenders had the highest average sentence (127 months).  Those sentenced in 2016 fared even worse, facing an average sentence of 150 months.

More than half (55.7%) of all federal inmates as of September 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  The average sentence length for offenders who were convicted of a mandatory minimum penalty was nearly 10 years of imprisonment (110 months).  In contrast, the average federal sentence for those offenders who were convicted of an offense that did not carry a mandatory minimum penalty was less than 3 years (28 months).

Clearly, these types of offenses are very serious.  If you or a loved one find yourself charged with a federal offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty, you need skilled representation immediately.   Please call (859) 394-6200 and ask for ASWD attorney Lee Metzger, or send an email to [email protected].

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