This blog post will re-examine the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) and focus on mandatory minimums. For the purposes of this blog post, “mandatory minimums” refers to “when a person convicted of a crime must be imprisoned for a minimum term, as opposed to leaving the length of punishment up to judges.”[1] “Mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors.”[2]

Although originally intended for violent offenders, mandatory minimums now impact non-violent offenders as well.[3] Mandatory minimums are often excessive and unjust, but this is not new.  In 1994, Congress created a “safety valve” for those offenders “who most warrant proportionally lower sentences” and “are least culpable”.[4] The safety valve allows federal judges to go below an otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentence in low-level drug cases (“essentially non-violent, first time offenders.”)[5] If signed into law, the SRCA will go beyond the 1994 safety valve and reduce penalties for those who are non-violent repeat offenders. Further, under SRCA, federal judges will also gain discretion in the cases of low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum, and in sentencing those individuals who possess a firearm illegally, provided that the firearm was not brandished or discharged in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking.[6]

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, released a memorandum on sentencing guidelines that is inconsistent with the goals of the 1994 safety valve and the proposed SRCA. These sentencing guidelines instruct federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious readily provable offense”—claiming that this method “affirms…responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.”[7] In the memorandum, Sessions goes on to say, “the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences”[8]

Despite the influence of the Sessions memo, some of the federal judges (who enforce these mandatory minimums) are speaking out about the grave injustice mandatory minimums are creating. In an interview with Rachel Martin of NPR, Federal Judge Mark Bennett addressed the “consistency claim” suggested by Sessions’ memo by saying “mandatory minimums support unwarranted uniformity by treating everyone alike even though their situations are dramatically different.”[9] In the same interview, Bennett said “mandatory minimums are so incredibly harsh and they’re triggered by such low levels of drugs that they snare at the non-violent, low-level addicts…”[10] According to Judge Bennett, about 80% of the cases involving mandatory minimums are unfair.[11]

One case where Judge Bennett felt the mandatory minimum was too harsh involved 28-year-old Mark Paul Weller. In 2015, Judge Bennett issued a ten-year sentence in response to Mr. Weller’s guilty plea to two counts of distributing methamphetamine (“meth”) in his home town.[12] While Weller did have a brief criminal history, he had made significant efforts to improve his life.[13] Unfortunately, with an unexpected, emotional life event, he turned to drugs and alcohol.[14] This downward spiral led Weller to eventually sell meth.[15] Over the course of eight months, Weller had sold 2.5 kilograms of meth across state lines.[16] Weller had traded meth for his sister’s rent, a used car, gas money, and even an unregistered SKS rifle.[17] The unregistered rifle was still in the car when he was pulled over with 223 grams of meth.[18]

“Weller was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute 500 grams or more of a methamphetamine mixture which contained 50 grams or more of pure methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), and 846, and distributing 50 grams or more of a methamphetamine mixture which contained 5 grams or more of pure methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(B).”[19]

Because of Weller’s guilty plea to these charges, his mandatory minimum established by Congress was 10 years. Sadly, his entire sentence involved only the calculation of the following factors: victim impact, criminal history, cost of imprisonment, and the guideline sentence. The answers to this calculation were as follows:  no identifiable victim, minimal criminal history, $2,440.97 per month of imprisonment, and a suggested sentence of 151-188 months.

After sentencing Weller to 120 months, Bennett considered the result of this punishment: “one more nonviolent offender packed into an overcrowded prison; another $300,000 in government money spent.” “I would have given him a year in rehab if I could…How does 10 years make anything better? What good are we doing?” Judge Bennett noted, there were many mitigating factors in Mr. Weller’s case, like neglect and abuse by his mother, addiction, and remorse. Yet, even after consideration of those mitigating factors, he was forced to give Mr. Weller the 10-year sentence. Judge Bennett had absolutely no power to shorten or change the sentence type, i.e.: rehab instead of prison.[20], [21]

If passed, SRCA would scale back police and prosecutor power by restoring the use of judicial discretion.

Katie Parr is a law clerk at Cause of Action Institute.


[1] U.S. Legal,

[2] See Id.

[3] See 4, Erik Luna, Reforming Criminal Justice, Punishment, Incarceration and Release, Mandatory Minimums, 2017, at 126.

[4] Id. at 122.

[5] Id.

[6] Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, S.1917, 115th Cong. (1st Sess. 2017)

[7]  Memorandum from Jefferson B. Sessions, Att’y Gem., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to All Federal Prosecutors, Department Charging and Sentencing Policy 1 (May 10, 2017).

[8] Id.

[9] A Federal Judge Says Mandatory Minimums Don’t Fit The Crime, Rachel Martin, NPR (June 1, 2017),

[10] Id.

[11] Mallory Simon, Sara Sidner, The judge who says he’s part of the gravest injustice in America, CNN, updated: (June 3, 2017).

[12] Against His Better Judgment, Eli Saslow, The Washington Post (June 6, 2017)

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Weller v. United States of America, No. CR-14-4059-1-MWB, 2015 U.S. Dist.

[20] See Luna supra, note 12 at 2.

[21] In addition to unfair sentencing, mandatory minimums may also help to maintain job security for prison guards. Some prison guard unions have sponsored and lobbied for harsher sentencing laws. supra note 3 at 131, at 1.