The push beginning in 2010 by Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice to reform sentencing is being linked to a downturn in the number of federal inmates convicted of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.
According to a new report from the United States Sentencing Commission, the number of federal inmates sentenced under mandatory minimum laws dropped 14 percent from 2010 to 2016. These offenders still comprise more than half of the federal prison population although their percentage of the overall incarcerated group declined slightly. Mandatory minimum inmates accounted for 55.7 percent of the population in the Bureau of Prisons in 2016 compared to 58.6 percent in 2010.
The report, 2017 Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, attributed the shift to the easing of some of the more stringent penalties for drug violations in recent years and to changes made to sentencing guidelines.
In particular, the Commission links the drop to the actions in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department in 2010 and 2013 instructed prosecutors to be more selective in charging offenses with mandatory minimum penalties. Also in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.
Overall, the Commission found, offenders convicted of a crime that carried a mandatory minimum sentence constituted a smaller portion of district court dockets than in fiscal year 2010.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana was among 10 jurisdictions that had more than 50 percent of its docket involving offenders convicted of a crime that had a mandatory minimum in fiscal year 2010. The Southern Indiana District had 55.8 percent of its caseload comprised of mandatory minimums in 2010 but by fiscal year 2016, the percentage had fallen to 41.6 percent.
The report is the first major update of the Commission’s analysis of the impact of mandatory minimum penalties since 2011.
Key findings in the report include:
• Drug-related offenses, particularly drug trafficking, accounted for about two-thirds of the total offenses carrying a mandatory minimum (67.3 percent) in 2016. The next largest category was pornography (6.9 percent) followed by firearms (5.7 percent) and sexual abuse (5.2 percent).
• As they did in 2010, Hispanic offenders represented the largest group (40 percent) convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence in 2016. Black offenders constituted the next largest group (29.7 percent) while white offenders were slightly smaller (27.2 percent).
• However, unlike 2010, white offenders got longer mandatory minimum sentences than the other groups. The average sentence for white offenders in 2016 was 127 months, followed by black offenders’ average sentence of 119 months and Hispanic offenders with 93 months. In 2010, black offenders had the highest average mandatory minimum sentence of 127 months and white offenders had an average of 102 months.