1991 Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System


In 1990, Congress formally directed the Sentencing Commission to respond to a series of questions concerning the compatibility between guidelines and mandatory minimums, the effect of mandatory minimums, and options for Congress to exercise its power to direct sentencing policy through mechanisms other than mandatory minimums. It is to this directive that the attached report is addressed (August 1991).

Key Findings

  • There are over 60 criminal statutes that contain mandatory minimum penalties applicable to federal offenses in the federal criminal code today. 
  • The disparate application of mandatory minimum sentences in cases in which available data strongly suggest that a mandatory minimum is applicable appears to be related to the race of the defendant, where whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable  mandatory minimum; and to the circuit in which the defendant happens to be sentenced, where defendants sentenced in some circuits are more likely to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimums than defendants sentenced in other circuits.
  • Under the guidelines, offenders classified as similar receive similar sentences; under mandatory minimums, offenders seemingly not similar nonetheless receive similar sentences.  It thus appears that an unintended effect of mandatory minimums is unwarranted sentencing uniformity.
  • The most efficient and effective way for Congress to exercise its powers to direct sentencing policy is through the established process of sentencing guidelines, permitting the sophistication  of the guidelines structure to work, rather than through mandatory minimums.