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General Effect of Mandatory Minimum Prison Terms

NCJ Number
B S Meierhoefer
Date Published
This research provides an overview of how Federal sentencing has changed from January 1984 through June 1990, a period which saw the proliferation of statutory mandatory minimums and the promulgation of sentencing guidelines.
Although there are many mandatory minimum statutes, those with the greatest impact on Federal sentencing are for drug trafficking offenses that involve large amounts of drugs and possession or use of a firearm during a drug trafficking felony or a violent crime. This research focuses on sentences for these two types of offenses. The study concludes that mandatory minimum sentence laws contribute to increased sentence length. Mandatory minimum sentences and the sentencing guidelines have also apparently narrowed the difference in the sentences imposed for equally serious offenses that involve marijuana and opiates. Another effect has been a reduction in the importance of age and the distinction between leadership and middleman roles in the sentencing decision. In all instances, the narrowing of differences stems from more severe sentencing of the previously advantaged group. Mandatory minimum sentence laws have not ensured that all of those involved in the proscribed behaviors receive at least the minimum term; just under one-half of those who would apparently be eligible received lesser sentences. Despite the laws' emphasis on offense behavior, sentences still vary by offender characteristics; the least culpable offenders and female offenders continue to receive less severe sentences than others involved in similar offenses. Both black and Hispanic offenders now receive noticeably more severe sentences than their white counterparts. 16 figures, 2 tables, and a statistical appendix