Attorney General Eric Holder, in a Memo to federal prosecutors dated September 24, 2014, prohibits using the threat of enhanced mandatory minimum sentences (21 U.S.C. § 851) to force criminal defendants to plead guilty.
For example, a defendant charged with conspiracy to distribute 5kg. or more of cocaine would be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. But if the defendant had one prior controlled substance conviction, the prosecutor could threaten to file a “§ 851 notice” doubling the mandatory minimum sentence to 20 years, if the defendant did not plead guilty. This is the so-called “trial penalty” used by federal prosecutors to pressure defendants to plead guilty and to give up their constitutional right to a trial by jury.
“Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon Administration. The Committee voted, 13-5, in support of S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).
The Smarter Sentencing Act:
• Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders by half
• Narrowly increases the scope of an existing “safety valve” exception to federal drug offenses
• Allows 8,800 federal prisoners imprisoned for crack cocaine crimes to return to court to seek fairer punishments in line with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a unanimously-passed measure to reduce the racially discriminatory disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses
• Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties. This part of the bill addresses growing bipartisan concerns about the issue of “over-criminalization” – that there are too many federal crimes and that people can and do unknowingly and unintentionally break laws and regulations and serve jail or prison time for violations that could be better addressed with fines.
• Adds new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism offenses.”
See the news report here.
These reforms are not law yet, but this is an important first step.