Under both state and federal law, certain crimes are subject to mandatory minimum prison sentences. These are pre-determined sentences that must be handed down by the judge, regardless of the circumstances in the case. These sentences have led to harsh prison terms for minor crimes because the judge cannot consider any mitigating circumstances that could lead to a reduced sentence. For example, Scott Earle received 25 years in prison under Florida's mandatory minimum law after selling painkillers to an undercover cop. Another example is Mandy Martinson, who was a first-time offender sentenced to 15 years in prison for meth charges. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the judges in both cases expressed concern about the length of the sentence they were required to impose.
In recent years, mandatory minimums have come under scrutiny. In 2015, the Washington Post reported on a Public Religion Research Institute survey that asked whether or not mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders should be done away with. The results showed that 77% of Americans surveyed wanted to eliminate mandatory minimums in these types of cases. The idea had bipartisan support, with 83% of Democrats in favor and 66% of Republicans in favor.
Some states are now moving away from mandatory minimums in certain cases. For example, in Pennsylvania, the state's Supreme Court decided in June of 2015 that a Pennsylvania statute that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence on defendant Kyle J. Hopkins was unconstitutional. Hopkins had been convicted of dealing drugs in a school zone, which carried a mandatory two-year prison term. Prior to his trial, the trial court judge had ruled that the mandatory term was unconstitutional, due to an earlier United States Supreme Court case, Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013). The Pennsylvania trial court stated, "that it was bound by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Alleyne, which held that facts which increase the mandatory minimum sentence are an element of the offense which must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt." The district attorney's office appealed the case directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court found that the trial court was correct, that the mandatory minimum sentence in Hopkin's case was unconstitutional as it was inconsistent with Alleyne.
According to The Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, the question in this case "was a closely watched one, with more than 75 related cases on hold pending the opinion, including challenges to other mandatory minimums, including those for drug trafficking and for mixing drugs and guns." However, the ruling did not disturb every mandatory minimum in the state. Violent crimes such as first and second-degree homicide will still carry an automatic life sentence. Certain other drug crimes, like the manufacture of methamphetamine, will also keep the current two-year mandatory minimum.
States that move away from mandatory minimum sentences allow judges to have more discretion when sentencing defendants. With more discretion, a judge can look at the facts and circumstances of a particular case and determine what punishment is most fitting for the crime that was committed. Only time will tell if other states, like Washington, follow suit and begin to repeal or overturn their mandatory minimum laws.