Mandatory minimums study released
- U.S. Sentencing Commission issues first study in 20 years on mandatory
Marcia Coyle The National Law Journal
October 31, 2011
Black convicted offenders are the racial group least likely to earn relief
from mandatory minimum sentences for assisting the government, according
to a major study of mandatory minimum penalties by the U.S. Sentencing
In a 645-page report to Congress, the Commission said almost half (46.7
percent) of all offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory
minimum penalty were relieved from the application of the penalty at sentencing
for assisting the government, qualifying for "safety valve" relief or both.
But black offenders received relief from a mandatory minimum penalty least
often (in 34.9 percent of their cases), compared to white (46.5 percent),
Hispanic (55.7 percent) and other race (58.9 percent) offenders.
"In particular, Black offenders qualified for relief under the safety
valve at the lowest rate of any other racial group (11.1%), compared to White
(26.7%), Hispanic (42.8%) and Other Race (36.6%), either because of their
criminal history or the involvement of a dangerous weapon in connection with
the offense," said the report. Under the guidelines, safety valve relief
allows a low-level, nonviolent, first offender to be sentenced below the
"While there is a spectrum of views on the Commission regarding mandatory
minimum penalties, the Commission unanimously believes that certain
mandatory minimum penalties apply too broadly, are excessively severe, and are
applied inconsistently across the country," said Commission Chairwoman Judge
Patti Saris in a statement. "The Commission continues to believe that a
strong and effective guideline system best serves the purposes of sentencing
established by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984."
The report recommends that Congress reassess certain statutory recidivist
provisions for drug offenses and tailor the "safety valve" relief mechanism
to other low-level, nonviolent offenders convicted of other offenses
carrying mandatory minimum penalties. It also recommends that Congress examine
and re-evaluate the "stacking" of mandatory minimum penalties for certain
federal firearms offenses. Penalties for those offenses can be excessively
severe and unjust, particularly in circumstances in which there is no
physical harm or threat of physical harm, according to the report.
The Commission's study is its first since its 1991 study of mandatory
minimums. The Commission reviewed 73,239 cases from fiscal year 2010 as well as
its data sets from previous fiscal years to conduct the data analyses in
the report and support the findings and conclusions.
Among other key findings:
• More than 27 percent of offenders included in the pool were convicted of
an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
• More than 75 percent of those offenders convicted of an offense carrying
a mandatory minimum penalty were convicted of a drug trafficking offense.
• Hispanic offenders accounted for the largest group (38.3 percent) of
offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty,
followed by black offenders (31.5 percent), white offenders (27.4 percent), and
other race offenders (2.7 percent).
• Offenders subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing received
an average sentence of 139 months, compared to an average sentence of 63
months for those offenders who received relief from a mandatory minimum
• 14.5 percent of all federal offenders remained subject to (meaning they
received no relief from) a mandatory minimum at sentencing.
• Just over 39 percent of offenders in the custody of the federal Bureau
of Prisons were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing. While
the number of offenders subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at
sentencing has increased, the proportion of those offenders to others in federal
custody has remained stable during the past 20 years.
Marcia Coyle can be contacted at mcoyle@....
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