Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
This section will provide a very brief overview of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. For more comprehensive information, please refer to the listed web pages in the Links and Publications section.
Mandatory minimum sentencing began in 1986. The U.S. Congress enacted these laws to compel judges to sentence individuals convicted of a drug crime to a fixed length of time based on the offense, thus undermining traditional judicial discretion that allows judges to determine sentencing. The sentence is determined based on three factors: the type of drug, the amount of the drug on the person (the weight of the drug) and the number of prior convictions. Individuals must be sentenced a minimum number of years based on these three triggering criteria.
Like many states, Illinois employs a graduated penalty structure for drug law violations, by which the penalty is dependent on the weight of drugs (or number of pills) involved. As the weight increases, offense classification and the resulting penalties become increasingly severe. The graduated penalty structure utilizes the type of drug and the amount of drugs involved in the offense to determine the sentence. The type and weight may be the difference between treatment and probation, or between probation and prison time.
In the early 1990s, a graduated system of mandatory minimums and extension of maximum sentences for Class X felonies was enacted. These changes to the Illinois Code effectively disqualified some offenders from receiving treatment in the community, and required long prison sentences. Additionally, legislative changes throughout the 1980s and 1990s continually decreased the weight of drugs that triggered a prison sentence for both sales and possession offenses (Through a Different Lens, 2007).
In an approximately 25-year time period, the felony classification and criminal charges for drug possession offenses have changed dramatically. Currently, individuals who possess smaller amounts of drugs face greater penalties than in the past. Since the reclassification of drug offense weights, an individual convicted of possession of 15 grams of cocaine—about ½ a tablespoon—is now eligible to serve the same sentence as violent offender convicted of sexual assault or child pornography (Through a Different Lens, 2007).
For sales offenses, the amount of drugs required to “trigger” a prison sentence has decreased dramatically over the past two decades. In 1982, more than 30 grams of cocaine constituted a mandatory prison sentence, but today sales of five grams of
cocaine or heroin—about ½ a teaspoon—carries a mandatory prison sentence.
Currently, an individual convicted of sales of half a teaspoon, or 5 grams, of cocaine can serve the same sentence as a violent offender convicted of sexual assault. Sales of 15 grams, about ½ a tablespoon, carries the same sentence as armed robbery or aggravated criminal sexual assault, a prison sentence ranging from 4 to 15 years. Sales of very small amounts of drugs, less than one gram of cocaine, about 1/10 of a teaspoon, carries the same sentence as arson or robbery, a sentence range of 3 to 7 years (Through a Different Lens, 2007).