Minimum Mandatory Sentences and the Absence of Judicial Discretion

Regardless of your personal beliefs concerning the effectiveness or necessity of minimum mandatory sentencing, it is safe to say that it is at the forefront of discussion.  Although limited discretion in the face of statutorily mandated minimums has been a topic that has been debated since its implementation, it has become increasingly evaluated following Eric Holder’s announcement concerning the federal government’s intentions to selectively charge low-level, non-violent offenders in a manner to avoid these minimum mandatories.

There are parties on both sides of the rope who feel passionately about their positions.  Groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM),, promote individualized sentencing and seek to divert funds used for incarceration to other programs such as law enforcement.  FAMM also highlights the thoughts and opinions of individuals such as Rand Paul, Charles Ogletree and others, who have spoken up concerning their beliefs that a movement away from minimum mandatory sentencing is necessary for the well-being of this society.

However, there are also outspoken proponents of mandatory sentencing.  These parties equate Florida experiencing a 40-year low crime rate to be a direct result of the tough stance Florida has taken on crime.  This is no small accomplishment, and one that should be evaluated when determining the necessity of minimum mandatories.  However, Florida’s tough stance on crime has continued to be reinforced through sentencing reform and the application of measures that take sentencing discretion away from the judiciary.  This has left little to no room for a determination of individualized factors when imposing a sentence.

Due to this lack of discretion, the very individuals who should receive a downward departure from a minimum mandatory sentence are very likely to be the ones who cannot meet the requirements generally necessary for such reduction.  Judges are typically only permitted to impose a sentence below a statutorily mandated minimum upon motion by the State.  The State generally refuses to move for a downward departure unless it can be shown that there was substantial assistance by the party being sentenced that assisted the State in some way, shape or form.

The only individual who is in a position to offer such assistance would be one who has significant ties to criminal behavior or organizations.  A drug addict who is a first time felony offender and is being sentenced under a particular drug law may not know drug kingpins or organizations that he or she can turn-in or provide evidence against.  This would effectively preclude a departure although he or she may be the one most deserving.

Although the conversation is far from over, it is clear there are positives and negatives to the implementation of minimum mandatories.  However, in the pursuit of tough, hard-lined sentences, that may indeed deter crime, and by applying across the board terms of incarceration where the judiciary is stripped of its discretion and power to apply an individualized determination, we may be sacrificing the goals that criminal sentencing is supposed to accomplish.

By Ryan C. Morris

Foundation Legal, P.A.


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