In 1996, Stephanie George, a 26-year-old mother of three, was convicted in a crack cocaine conspiracy case involving her then-boyfriend. But four years prior, George had been convicted of a number of drug-related offenses, and so she was deemed a "career criminal" who was subject to mandatory minimum sentencing. She was sentenced to life in prison.
"There's no question that Ms. George deserved to be punished. The only question is whether it should be a mandatory life sentence. ... I wish I had another alternative," said presiding Judge Roger Vinson as he was forced to put George behind bars for the rest of her life.
George spent 17 years in prison before getting her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. She was released April 17, 2014.
Mandatory minimums apply to a wide range of crimes and require a minimum amount of time that the convicted person must serve in prison before being considered for release.
Critics argue that mandatory minimums provide prosecutors with too much power leverage, allowing them to intimidate defendants into plea deals.
For example, prosecutors can tell defendants they will be charged with enough counts to trigger a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years unless the defendants cooperate. If they cooperate, the prosecutor would then drop a couple of the charges, leaving the defendants with a shorter sentence instead.
"The biggest problem with mandatory minimums is that they violate a basic principle of justice that Americans hold dear: That the punishment should fit the crime and the offender's role in it," Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Al Jazeera.
"This kind of plea negation is done routinely and is completely out of the public view and is unreviewable even by the judge," Stewart noted.
Critics also say the system is blind to circumstance, as was the case with Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who fired a warning shot at her estranged husband in 2010. Alexander received a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison, but may have been able to avoid it had she invoked the Stand Your Ground law and shot him instead.
Defenders of mandatory minimums, however, argue that the law keeps dangerous criminals off the streets. The man who shot and killed 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton — a student from Chicago who had performed at President Obama's inauguration just days before she was killed — would have already been in prison with a mandatory sentence due to a prior weapons offense.
Proponents of reforming mandatory minimums say that the Smarter Sentencing Act — still being discussed in Congress — would lessen minimums, including halving it for some offenses and making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.
"There is more support for the reform of sentencing laws today than there has been since 1970," Stewart said. Among those in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act are Obama, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and conservative super donors, the Koch brothers.
Under current laws, two defendants with the same quantity of drugs could conceivably receive the same mandatory sentence, even if one was an addict and the other a drug-dealer.
"The result is a broken sentencing system that defies the best practices of American justice," said Stewart.