Before 1951, mandatory minimum penalties typically punished offenses concerning treason, murder, piracy, rape, slave trafficking, internal revenue collection, and counterfeiting. Today, the majority of convictions under statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties relate to controlled substances, firearms, identity theft, and child sex offenses, and the mandatory minimum penalties of today are much more onerous than they were in the past. 

In 1951, Congress enacted a mandatory minimum penalty of two years imprisonment for violating the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act, which broadly prohibited the importation, sale, purchase, and receipt of controlled substances. The bill carried mandatory minimum penalties of five and 10 years for second and third violations. 

By the 1960s, mandatory minimums penalties for drug offenses had become unpopular, and Congress enacted a 1970 law repealing nearly all mandatory minimum penalties for drug offense. The Congress of that era believed that getting rid of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses would establish “a more realistic…system of punishment and deterrence of drug crimes.”

Fast forward another decade and the pendulum began to swing back, away from a rehabilitative model toward controlling crime suing “more certain, …and  more appropriately punitive” sentences. It was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that put in place the mandatory minimums that are most commonly applied today, particularly the penalties for firearm and drug trafficking crimes. 

Drug quantity was chosen as a proxy to identify the type of trafficker. A five-year mandatory minimum penalty was set for people caught with smaller amounts of drugs or “serious” traffickers, even if it was their first offense. A ten year mandatory minimum penalty was set for “major” traffickers, those caught with a greater amount of drugs. It was a good idea, but major drug kingpins rarely handled, and were rarely caught handling large amounts of drugs. 

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, determined to get “Tough on Crime,” Congress continued to ramp up penalties for drugs. It was the 1986 Act that established the 100-to-1 distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine penalties. 

In 1988, the mandatory minimum penalty for engaging in a “continuing drug enterprise” doubled from 10 to 20 years. The 1988 Act also set mandatory minimum penalties “conspiracy to commit,” which basically broadened the scope of mandatory minimums to include virtually any offender even slight associated with drug trafficking organizations, even small players, like drivers, girlfriends, and other hanger ons.

Is there anyway around mandatory minimum laws? Yes, providing “substantial assistance to the authorities” or one “safety valve” offer the only option. While judges doled out sentences based on mandatory  minimum laws, reduction in sentences for “substantial assistance to the authorities,” is under the control of prosecutors, and they used it to their benefit. Basically, this option means selling someone else out. That’s why you often see individuals giving up other “players” –sometimes even falsely. A person who “talks” can get their time reduced to 5 years while another person charged in the same incident may end up spending life in prison. 

After years of complaining about how Mandatory Minimum Laws fail to look at the individual and only at numbers, in 1994, activists’ organizations were able to get a small exception to the sentencing rules passed. Under current federal law, there is only one “safety valve,” and it applies only to first-time, nonviolent drug offenders whose cases did not involve guns. In this situation, and this situation only, can a judge deter from Mandatory Minimum sentencing requirements. 

Since 1994, more than 90,000 nonviolent drug offenders have received a lesser sentence because of this measure. 

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