In considering sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing, there are similarities and differences. The nuances of each, when comparing one to another, can be confusing. The inherent intent of both is to ensure fair and justified sentencing when considering certain offenses.
Among others, three significant purposes to both are that the punishment does not exceed the extent of the crime; that if the crime warrants, a mandatory minimum penalty should be assessed; and that given the offense, punishment is fair to all who commit a similar offense. Sentencing guidelines for federal offenses (addressed here as opposed to individual state or county offenses) are generally set forth according to the United State Sentencing Commission (USSC). On the other hand, mandatory minimum sentences are typically promulgated by Congress.
For the most part, sentencing guidelines may be changed by the commission, and unless opposed by Congress, become law. Mandatory minimums can be revised only by Congress. Herein lies some confusion: Mandatory minimums are mandatory unless two exceptions apply. The exceptions are “safety valves” and “substantial assistance,” and largely apply to drug offenses. If one or both apply to the situation, the mandatory minimal sentence may be amended, hence reduced.
Sentencing guidelines are considered just that: a guideline. The courts are required to take into consideration the USSC guidelines but they are not the only consideration when handing down a sentence which is, according to U.S.C. § 3553, “sufficient but not greater than necessary” Circumstances to be considered could be the age of the offender, the type offense, whether a weapon was used during the commission of the crime, and cooperation or assistance by the offender.
One Constitutional issue is that of the Eighth Amendment. It guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. Bernick and Larkin (2014) wrote, “The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld lengthy mandatory terms of imprisonment over the challenge that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.”
Bernick, E. and Larkin P. (2014, February 10). Reconsidering mandatory minimum sentences: Arguments for and against potential reforms. Retrieved from www.insideronline.org//reconsidering-mandatory-minimum-sentences
Families against Mandatory Minimums (2014). Sentencing 101. Retrieved from www.famm.org/sentencing-101/how federal sentencing works
U.S.C. § 3553
U.S. Const. Amend. VIII
United States Sentencing Commission. (2015, August). Federal sentencing: The basics. Washington, D.C. Author