The use of criminal charges that carry a mandatory minimum prison term has dropped since 2011, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).
However, in a multi-year study evaluating the use and impact of mandatory minimums for federal offenses, the commission also found that white offenders convicted of crimes carrying a mandatory minimum are now serving the highest average sentences.
As of September 2016, over 55 percent of inmates in federal custody had been charged with a crime that carries, or triggers, a mandatory minimum prison term. The average sentence was 110 months, or 9.1 years– over four times the average sentence for other crimes.
Among inmates who had received sentencing relief in court, the average sentence was still twice as long as for other federal crimes.
The commission notes that impact from policy changes during the later years of the Obama administration is likely to have influenced the data in its report.
The USSC issued its last analysis of federal mandatory minimums in 2011, and made several key recommendations to Congress– including that it “reassess the severity and scope” of enhanced sentences triggered by drug crime recidivism. While several bipartisan bills on sentencing reform have been introduced, none has passed.
Policy directives and practice changed between 2010 and 2017, though. Former Attorney General Eric Holder loosened the mandate to charge offenders with the “most serious offense” supported by the facts, requiring individualized assessment of the charges. He later issued a memorandum instructing prosecutors not to seek maximum charges under certain specific circumstances.
Since then, the Supreme Court has modified directives issued in the Holder memo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed prosecutors to once again seek the harshest possible charges.
The full Sentencing Commission report can be found here: Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System.