The nation's first mandatory sentences were imposed under the 1790 Crimes Act, according to a published history from the United States Sentencing Commission. Seven of the 23 original federal crimes carried the death penalty: murder, treason, counterfeiting of currency, rescue of a person convicted of a capital crime and three piracy offenses.
The initial mandatory minimum sentences were enacted in 1807 when Congress prohibited importing slaves into the U.S., carrying a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. At the same time, serving on a slave ship brought a mandatory two-year prison term.
The Civil War brought new mandatory sentences. Recruiting soldiers to fight against the U.S. brought a one-year minimum prison sentence for both the recruiter and the soldier. A person convicted of kidnapping a freed person with the intent to sell the person into slavery faced at least five years.
In 1909, Congress repealed 31 mandatory minimum sentences, including misconduct by public employees, counterfeiting, forgery and slave trafficking.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were first added in 1951. The importation, sale and purchase of controlled substances brought a mandatory two years in prison. Five years later, a 10-year minimum was imposed for selling heroin to minors.
In the late 1960s, President Richard Nixon proposed sweeping reforms of sentencing laws dealing with drug offenses. In 1970, Congress repealed nearly all mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
A new push for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses took place after the June 1986 cocaine death of University of Maryland All-America basketball player Len Bias.
Two days before Bias died, he was chosen by the Boston Celtics as the No. 2 pick in the 1986 draft. Back at his College Park, Md., dormitory, the 6-foot-8 Bias passed out from a cocaine overdose and later died.
Congress passed legislation that year that set the framework for the modern system of mandatory minimum drug sentences. It imposed a five-year minimum for "serious traffickers" and a 10-year minimum for "major traffickers."
In 2010, Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentences for possession of small amounts of crack cocaine, following widespread criticism that those sentences unfairly affected poor people while richer people convicted of powdered cocaine offenses did far less prison time.
At the same time, the amounts of crack needed to trigger the mandatory minimum sentences of five years and 10 years for trafficking were increased.
Attorney General Eric Holder's federal action was a further refinement of what took place in 2010, said U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson.