In most criminal cases that result in a conviction, the judge presiding over the case has the power to decide what sentence the defendant will receive, usually only subject to a maximum sentence, and some guidelines for the judge to consider. However, in a situation where there is a mandatory minimum written into a criminal statute by the legislature, the judge does not have discretion to give a sentence that is below the mandatory minimum sentence set within the law.
A mandatory minimum sentence is the lowest minimum sentence that a judge can give a convicted offender for a particular crime, pursuant to the statute.
Many states have what is called “indeterminate sentencing.” This means that the judge, at sentencing, will set both a minimum and maximum sentence. The minimum sentence is the earliest date that a defendant can be released on parole. The maximum sentence is the longest amount of time that a person can be held in prison if they are not released on parole.
While for most offenses, a judge could conceivably give almost any sentence below the maximum as their minimum sentence, including in some cases, no jail time. Statutory mandatory minimums take away the judge’s discretion to give an amount of time below the mandatory minimum.
For example, you might have a drug case where a judge thinks that probation is appropriate. However, there is a statutory mandatory minimum that requires the judge to sentence the defendant to a minimum of five years in prison. The judge can’t first give the defendant probation to see if they can be treated and rehabilitated. The judge has to send the defendant to prison for a minimum of five years.
The most common crimes that legislatures set mandatory minimums on are sexual offenses, child pornography offenses, and some drug crimes.
Many people oppose mandatory minimum sentences, because it results in longer periods of incarceration than are necessary for certain offenders, it takes away the ability of the judge to exercise their individual judgment about a particular case, results in unfair and inequitable treatment of some defendants, and gives too much leverage to prosecutors to pressure innocent people to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit.
If you have been charged with a crime that involves a mandatory minimum sentence, it is important that you contact a criminal lawyer who is experienced in defending those accused of serious criminal cases.