This is sentencing 101, so let’s start with a basic definition: A sentence is an official punishment handed down by a judge to someone who has been convicted of a crime. Not all sentences involve prison time. Defendants can also be sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine. Many times, defendants will get sentenced to a little (or a lot) of all of the above: They serve time in prison, have to report to a probation officer after they get out, and must pay money to the government (fines) and to their victims (restitution).
FAMM’s work focuses on sentences that send people to prison. In particular, we’re concerned with overly harsh and outdated sentences, which fall into two categories: Mandatory minimum sentences and guideline sentences.
How a Sentence Is Determined: Mandatory Minimums and Guidelines
In the Federal Courts system—which handles cases brought by federal prosecutors who work for the U.S. Department of Justice, rather than cases brought by local or state prosecutors—judges base their sentences on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, or both.
Mandatory minimum sentences—set by Congress, not judges—require automatic, minimum prison terms for certain crimes. Most mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug offenses, but Congress has also enacted them for other crimes, including certain gun, pornography, and economic offenses. As an example of a mandatory minimum sentence, under federal law, selling 28 grams of crack cocaine triggers a minimum sentence of five years in prison. And if you’re caught selling 280 grams of crack, you’ll face a minimum of 10 years behind bars even if the judge does not think you need such a long sentence. (There are a few exceptions, such as the Safety Valve—see more on this below—and cooperating with the government.)
Judges also use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual. As its name suggests, the manual guides judges toward a sentence based on the facts that led to the conviction. Unlike mandatory minimums, the sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. In calculating sentences, judges are allowed to go below or above someone’s guideline sentence depending on the circumstances of the case.
Here’s an example of how a federal judge uses the guidelines to determine a sentence for a man convicted of distributing seven kilograms of marijuana (a drug amount that is too low to trigger a mandatory minimum):
While judges can vary from the sentencing guidelines, they can’t sentence below the mandatory minimums (except in very limited circumstances). If there is a mandatory minimum triggered by the crime, it always trumps a lower guidelines sentence. Read this FAQ for even more information about how federal sentencing works.
What about the states?
What we just went over is what happens in federal court. If you are prosecuted for a crime in state court, the laws and processes will be different. Some states use sentencing guidelines and some have mandatory minimums, but each state functions differently. Learn about sentencing laws in Massachusetts and Florida and check out our state map.