After University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, a number of states enacted “Len Bias laws” that impose harsh penalties on those who sell drugs that result in the death of the buyers who use them. Congress went a step further.

It created mandatory minimum sentences for a number of federal drug crimes, not all of which are triggered by the consequences of drug use. Federal and state politicians who feared being portrayed as “soft on crime” enacted a number of disastrous laws that caused prison populations to swell at the expense of taxpayers.

When death or serious injury is caused by the ingestion of drugs that the defendant sold, a lengthy minimum sentence (sometimes a life sentence) must be imposed, but mandatory minimum sentences are also triggered by the quantity of controlled substances that are sold and by the defendant’s criminal record.

Problems Regarding Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum sentences have been widely criticized. Much of that criticism has come from federal judges. Mandatory sentencing laws prevent judges from imposing lenient sentences on individuals who deserve them. They prevent judges from taking account of mitigating circumstances, such as the minor role a defendant played in a conspiracy. They give prosecutors (rather than judges) control of which defendants receive harsh sentences because prosecutors decide who will be charged with offenses carrying a mandatory minimum sentence.

In addition, prosecutors have the power to ask the court to sentence below the mandatory minimum to reward defendants for informing on, or testifying against, other individuals suspected of drug crimes. Judges cannot sentence below a mandatory minimum unless a prosecutor authorizes them to do so. Mandatory minimum sentences, therefore, shift sentencing authority from judges to prosecutors.

In addition to their unfairness to individual defendants, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have resulted in overcrowded prisons and the diversion of tax revenues to pay for prisons that could be used for better purposes. Despite the senselessness of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, legislators believe that they appear “tough on crime” by enacting those laws. Voting for mandatory minimum sentencing laws actually makes legislators “tough on taxpayers” and “tough on families” while having little or no impact on crime.

Examples of federal mandatory minimum sentences include:

5-Year Mandatory Minimum

  • Distributing at least 100 G but less than 1 KG of heroin
  • Distributing at least 500 G but less than 5 KG of cocaine
  • Distributing at least 28 G but less than 280 G of crack
  • Distributing at least 50 G but less than 500 G of methamphetamine (or 5 G to 50 G of pure methamphetamine)
  • Distributing at least 1 G but less than 10 G of LSD
  • Distributing at least 100 KG but less than 1,000 KG of marijuana (or growing 100 to 1,000 plants)

10-Year Mandatory Minimum

  • Distributing 1 KG or more of heroin
  • Distributing 5 KG or more of cocaine
  • Distributing 280 G or more of crack
  • Distributing 500 G or more of methamphetamine (or 50 G or more of pure methamphetamine)
  • Distributing 10 G or more of LSD
  • Distributing 1,000 KG or more or marijuana (or growing more than 1,000 plants)
  • Committing any of the crimes listed above under “5 year mandatory minimum” after a prior state or federal conviction for a drug crime

20-Year Mandatory Minimum

  • Committing any of the crimes listed above under “10 year mandatory minimum” after a prior state or federal conviction for a drug crime
  • Committing any distribution offense if serious injury or death results (but if the defendant has a prior state or federal conviction for a drug crime, the mandatory sentence is life)

You can find a complete list of mandatory minimum sentences on the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) website.

Make Sure a Drug Lawyer Defends You

Minimum sentencing laws can pose a serious threat to the freedom of any person who is charged with a Texas drug crime. To maximize your chance of avoiding a minimum sentence, you need representation by an experienced criminal drug defense lawyer. If you have been accused of a Texas drug offense, call Hamilton Grant right away to begin planning your defense strategy.