Mandatory Minimum Sentencing of Federal Drug Offenses
Congressional Research Service
Jan 13, 2018

“As a general rule, federal judges must impose a minimum term of imprisonment upon defendants convicted of various controlled substance (drug) offenses and drug-related offenses. The severity of those sentences depends primarily upon the nature and amount of the drugs involved, the defendant’s prior criminal record, any resulting injuries or death, and in the case of the related firearms offenses, the manner in which the firearm was used. The drug offenses reside principally in the Controlled Substances Act or the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act.

“The drug-related firearms offenses involve the possession and use of firearms in connection with serious drug offenses and instances in which prior drug convictions trigger mandatory sentences for unlawful firearms possession. The minimum sentences range from imprisonment for a year to imprisonment for life. Although the sentences are usually referred to as mandatory minimum sentences, a defendant may avoid them under several circumstances. Prosecutors may elect not to prosecute. The President may choose to pardon the defendant or commute his sentence. The defendant may qualify for sentencing for providing authorities with substantial assistance or under the so-called “safety valve” provision available to low-level, nonviolent, first-time offenders.

“Over time, defendants, sentenced to mandatory terms of imprisonment for drug-related offenses, have challenged Congress’s legislative authority to authorize them and the government’s constitutional authority to enforcement. The challenges have met with scant success. Generally, courts have concluded that the provisions fall within congressional authority under the Commerce, Necessary and Proper, Treaty, and Territorial Clauses of the Constitution. By and large, courts have also found no impediment to imposition of mandatory minimum sentences under the Due Process, Equal Protection, or Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clauses, or the separation-of-powers doctrine. Proposals to amend drug-related mandatory minimum sentence provisions surfaced during the 114th Congress. In the 115th Congress, Senator Grassley introduced the successor to those proposals for himself and a bi-partisan list of co-sponsors as S. 1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. Many of the same issues are addressed in H.R. 4261 introduced by Representative Scott of Virginia. This is an overview of the law from which those proposals spring.

This report is available in an abridged version, CRS Report R45075, Mandatory Minimum Sentencing of Federal Drug Offenses in Short, without the citations to authority and origin of quotations found here.”
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