When we hear the words “mandatory minimums,” most of us think of federal courts, which are notorious for strictly imposed and unreasonable mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted.
In fact, you might assume that if your case is prosecuted at the state level, you don’t have to worry about mandatory minimums at all. Not so much in North Carolina.
Trafficking even relatively small quantities of illicit substances will result in excessive mandatory minimum sentencing that is not subject to parole or probation. This means that even low-level drug offenders spend years in prison.
In recent years, mandatory minimums have drawn increased scrutiny nationwide. A multitude of studies have shown that these inhumane sentencing guidelines do little to deter repeat offenders, but have devastating effects on the offenders and their families. Moreover, mandatory minimums for drug crimes contribute to overcrowding in prison systems, overwhelming US prisons with non-violent drug offenders.
Fortunately, North Carolina lawmakers are beginning to see the light, and the legislature has initiated efforts to develop legislation that will allow judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentencing under certain conditions.
However, in the meantime, you can expect to be subject to mandatory minimum sentencing if you are convicted of drug trafficking here. Therefore, we’ve put together a guide to North Carolina drug trafficking mandatory minimums.
North Carolina Mandatory Minimums: Know the Law
Under NC G.S. 90-95 (h), defendants convicted of drug trafficking in North Carolina courts are subject to mandatory minimum sentences, which range from 25-225 months depending on the type and amount of substance in question. These sentences are imposed even for first-time offenders and regardless of the circumstances surrounding the offense.
Further, even possession can be charged as drug trafficking if you are found with a large amount of drugs.
These mandatory minimums cannot be served concurrently with other sentences, and are not eligible for parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. This means that if you are convicted of drug trafficking in North Carolina, you will be serving the amount of time we outline below.
Let’s take a look at the mandatory minimums for the sale, manufacture, or delivery of specific substances.
- 10-50 pounds: 25 months
- 50-2,000 pounds: 35 months
- 2,000-10,000 pounds: 70 months
- 10,000+ pounds: 175 months
- 50-250 dosage units: 25 months
- 250-1,250 dosage units: 35 months
- 1,250-3,750 dosage units: 70 months
- 3,750+ dosage units: 175 months
- 28-200 grams: 35 months
- 200-400 grams: 70 months
- 400+ grams: 175 months
- 28-200 grams: 70 months
- 200-400 grams: 90 months
- 400+ grams: 225 months
Opium, Opiates, and Heroin
- 4-14 grams: 70 months
- 18-28 grams: 90 months
- 28+ grams: 225 months
- 28-200 grams or 100-500 pills: 35 months
- 200-400 grams or 500-1,000 pills: 70 months
- 400+ grams or 1,000+ pills: 175 months
Why NC Mandatory Minimums are Problematic
In most cases, sentencing guidelines are just that – guidelines. The prosecution is likely to take many factors into account, including prior offenses, aggravating factors, and mitigating factors, and impose a sentence that fits the crime.
Mandatory minimums take that discretion away, requiring that defendants serve the full term regardless of the specifics of their situation. In many cases, even the prosecutors themselves do not agree with the sentence or think that it is appropriate. However, the rigidity of mandatory minimums requires that the sentence be imposed no matter what.
From a human perspective, mandatory minimums are a waste of life. Incarceration affects not only the defendant, but also the defendant’s family. Over five million children have had a parent in prison – including one in nine black children nationwide. Further, mandatory minimums cause economic devastation to the poorest and most vulnerable populations.
Mandatory minimums also cause systemic problems in the already-overwhelmed North Carolina criminal justice system. Our prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and a high proportion of inmates are non-violent drug offenders.
Efforts to Change North Carolina Mandatory Minimums
Fortunately, as mentioned above, North Carolina lawmakers are beginning to see reason. As the opioid crisis continues, lawmakers are taking a look at how drug offenses are handled by the judicial system, and whether current policies are actually effective at reducing opioid use.
The answer, in case you’re wondering, is a resounding “no.”
In 2018, a legislative committee addressed the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, determining that judges should have the ability to deviate from mandatory minimums under certain circumstances.
Some states have incorporated a “safety valve” into mandatory minimum sentences, allowing the judge to dissent if the defendant and offense meet certain criteria. These criteria could include substance use disorders, mental health diagnoses, and other mitigating factors. If North Carolina passes this kind of legislation, state lawmakers would determine the criteria for dissenting mandatory minimums.
As of this writing, the North Carolina state legislature is likely to attempt to put this legislation into statute sometime in the next year.
Even so, the future of mandatory minimum sentencing for North Carolina drug crimes remains uncertain. Moreover, until new legislation is passed, drug offenders will be subject to these unreasonable sentencing guidelines if convicted.