The sentencing laws on the books for decades, but opposition to these strict sentencing guidelines as a “tough on crime” measure is now viewed by many as an overly harsh policy that disproportionately impacts minorities and low-income individuals. An unlikely group has emerged at the forefront of efforts to reform mandatory minimums: criminal defence lawyers. For example, someone convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine would face an automatic 5-year federal prison sentence at a minimum. Judges have no discretion under mandatory minimums – they must deliver the minimum sentence regardless of mitigating circumstances like a defendant’s limited criminal history.
Critics take issue with this rigid approach. They argue that mandatory minimums lead to excessive terms, remove judicial discretion, and contribute to over-incarceration. Studies have shown a disproportionate share of mandatory minimum sentences issued to Black and Hispanic defendants. Opponents want reforms allowing for exemptions in worthy cases. However, supporters contend they act as an effective deterrent to serious crime.
Criminal defence lawyers are engaged
London criminal defence solicitors are seeing the injustice of inflexible mandatory sentencing firsthand. They watch courts forced to issue harsh prison terms to first-time and lower-level offenders. The American Bar Association passed a resolution opposing mandatory minimums in part because thousands of individuals receive lengthy sentences for “relatively minor conduct.” Defence lawyers feel a duty to advocate for sentencing proportionality and judicial discretion on behalf of their clients. In addition, repealing mandatory minimums has become critical for broader reform advocates. Efforts to reduce prison overcrowding, fix racial disparities, curb government spending, and increase rehabilitative programming run straight into mandatory minimum roadblocks. Scrapping or reducing their scope is viewed as a necessary step toward overall progress. Wanting their voice heard in the reform debate, defence lawyers add lobbying muscle.
Recent reform efforts and successes
While plenty of work remains, the sustained advocacy from criminal lawyers and allies has led to important defections from traditional “law and order” politicians along with some meaningful reforms:
- Former Speaker Paul Ryan, Representative Doug Collins, and even President Donald Trump have voiced support for mandatory minimum reductions. The conservative Koch network is actively lobbying Republicans on the issue. This bipartisan momentum was unthinkable not long ago.
- The First Step Act signed by President Trump reduced a number of drug-related mandatory minimums. For example, the mandatory term for a first crack cocaine offense was lowered. Estimates suggest more than 2,000 people a year could qualify for reduced sentences under the law.
- Several states including Louisiana, Georgia, and Maryland have passed laws softening or eliminating certain mandatory minimums. Florida, Delaware, Mississippi and others have strengthened judicial discretion provisions for their impositions.
At both federal and state levels, mandatory minimum reform finally has the wind at its back thanks largely to persistent criminal defence lawyers constantly banging the drum. While more sweeping federal legislation called the Smarter Sentencing Act remains stalled, important contributors like Republican Senator Mike Lee vow to keep pushing mandatory minimum reductions. With steadfast allies, the end of deeply entrenched laws for too long considered untouchable may be in sight.