Sentencing Guidelines v. Mandatory Minimum Sentences.

Something I have wondered for some time now.

What exactly is the difference, in the United States, between mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines?

Because one, sentencing guidelines is unconstitutional. And the other, mandatory minimum sentences, apparently isn’t.

I am talking about criminal law, of course. And I have no idea how the matter is treated in other countries, which is why I limit my question to the USA.

I mean, what is to stop you from calling one the other, the other, one? And why is on unconstitutional, but not the other?

Thank you in advance to all who reply:).


IANAL, but minimum just means minimum but “guidelines” could deal with a maximum just as much as a minimum?

The UK has mandatory minimum sentences for some offences - eg a minimum of 7 years’ for a person over 18 convicted of trafficking, supplying or producing Class A drugs for the third or subsequent time. This means what it says - get convicted and do 7 years minimum.

Guidelines are just that: Advice to magistrates on the sentences to be handed out for a whole range of offences. They came about because magistrates are mostly part-time volunteers and they needed some guidance on sentencing. They have the freedom to vary sentences but they should use the guide as a base.

Sentencing guidelines are not automatically unconstitutional, they can be unconstitutional if they call for the sentencing judge to make determinations of fact outside of what the jury found or the defendant admitted to. Mandatory minimums do not call for the sentencing judge to make separate determinations of fact but to sentence based only on the crimes the defendant was found guilty of.

It’s not true that sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional. In fact they are very common. The court cases you might be thinking about were when the requirements were mandatory instead of just guidelines. See for example United States vs Booker:

A mandatory minimum is a minimum sentence that a judge must issue upon conviction as a matter of law.

A sentencing guideline is a set of procedures for calculating a sentence within a given statutory range. In the federal system, these are advisory only.

A mandatory minimum is just what it sounds like. Grow 100 marijuana plants, you will serve at least 5 years (add another 5 if you possess a gun). First degree murder, serve at least 20 years.

The sentencing guidelines are meant to figure out where in the permissible range a judge should sentence you. To use the marijuana example, five years might be the minimum, but the maximum might be 20 years. So, who should get five years, who should get 7, who should get 12 and who should get 20? The guidelines are designed to help the judge exercise his or her discretion. So, what is your prior criminal history? How much did you “take responsiblity” for your offense. Were you an organizer or a grunt? Points get added and subtracted, and then you look on a grid and see where you land. Then, the judge can depart from the guidelines, but at least there is some attempt to standardize the process and guide the use of judicial discretion.

I think the legal distinction was answered above quite well.

There’s another important distinction though. The intent behind mandatory minimums is often very nasty, and the societal effects are quite counter productive. Mandatory minimums are very often used to target segments of the population, especially where drug use is involved. A lot of this is inherited from the “bad old days” of the drug war ( but it also crops up in other criminal fields as well. It’s often counter productive because it equates a minor offense to a major one - that is, if there is a mandatory minimum for, say, jaywalking, that has is about the same as the penalty for murder, then it makes logical sense to murder someone to escape a jaywalking charge. Yeah. I’m sure someone better versed in the specifics can give a more concrete example, but this sort of break down happens all the time. It also makes mitigating circumstances (a woman stealing bread for her starving baby is the prototypical example) irrelevant, as it removes a judge’s flexibility, officer’s ability to negotiate plea bargains, and even effects a jury’s willingness to convict.

I’ve served on a state Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

No one ever told us that such Guidelines were unconstitutional. As far as I know, they are used every day in our Minnesota Courts.
(We did make efforts to ensure that the ‘factors’ used in the Guidelines were objective, factual items, not something dependent on anyone’s judgement. Like: How many previous convictions? Was a weapon used in the crime? etc.)

The difference has been covered; mandatory vs.* guideline*, and that the Guidelines also have maximums.

In Minnesota, the Guidelines are somewhat strengthened by a few things:

  • anytime a Judge departs (upward or downward) from the Guidelines, the Judge must write a statement justifying the departure. The extra paperwork alone discourages this.
  • such departures from the Guidelines can be appealed for review by a higher court (separate from the conviction itself).
  • the MN Board on Judicial Standards can discipline Judges for excessive or unreasonable departures from the Guidelines. (I don’t know that they have ever actually done so. Most of their actions are private, and not publicly announced.)
  • finally, the Judges statement explaining Guideline departures is public record. As all MN Judges are elected, an opponent running against a judge in the re-election campaign can attack them for their Guideline departures. (I’ve heard of at least a couple instances of this.)

Here’s an article about the Booker decision and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Point of correction about the UK: sentencing guidelines are advice from judges to other judges, not just local magistrates trying minor offences (at least in England and Wales - Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal and judicial systems, though they probably don’t differ too much).