In recent years, there has been much discussion regarding the effect of mandatory minimum prison sentences. The use of mandatory minimums have been one of the reasons the number of inmates in federal prisons has exploded, from 24,000 in 1980 to the current population of almost 200,000.
In addition to mandatory minimums, prosecutors also have what is known as 851 enhancements that they can use. This provision was designed to all allow enhancements in sentencing significant drug traffickers, as it allows the doubling of some mandatory minimum sentences with one prior felony conviction. With two priors, someone who would face a 10-year sentence could be looking at a life sentence.
But because of the loose definition of what qualifies as a prior felony, combined with the power of the prosecutor's office to decide whether to charge an 851 enhancement means it can be used with brute force to leave defendants with little choice but to accept virtually any plea deal the prosecutor offers.
If you are facing an 851 enhancement at trial, a conviction would mean an automatic life sentence, with your trial judge little more than a spectator in the sentencing process.
Former Attorney General Holder had issued instructions to U.S. Attorneys to only use these enhancements in the most serious of cases. Sadly, because U.S. Attorneys like to win, and an 851 enhancement gives them an immensely powerful tool to obtain "wins," in many districts throughout the country that instruction has been ignored.
While this type of coercive pressure can force plea agreements, the draconian sentences that result from 851 enhancements. Yet, mandatory minimums provide little value for their immense cost.
As one federal judge argues, they should be eliminated. He noted the research shows mandatory minimums do not enhance deterrence or crime control but extract a very high price. The lifetime expense of housing a prisoner, combined with the damage to the individual, their family and their community is staggering
Source: salon.com, "The government is abusing mandatory minimums: How law enforcement is ruining a generation of Americans," Daniel Denvir, December 3, 2015