Supreme Court Reconsiders Allowing Judges To Increase Sentences Without Jury Approval

Among the major contributors to the U.S. incarceration epidemic are harsh schemes for sentencing, and some of the most disproportionate sentences come about as a result of statutorily mandated minimum sentences.

Just last week, a former medical marijuana distributor who declined to plead guilty was sentenced to a ten-year minimum prison sentence by a federal judge who said, “the court’s hands are tied.”

But for some defendants, being sentenced to the mandatory minimum prison term for the crime of which they are convicted is just the tip of the iceberg. Judges may also use their discretion to add additional time up to a maximum allowable sentence. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court Monday considers the scope of that discretion when judges decide unilaterally that the defendant committed acts other than that for which they were convicted.

Allen Alleyne was convicted for robbing a convenience store owner as he drove to make a bank deposit. The jury found Alleyne guilty of both having committed the robbery, and having used or carried a firearm. They acquitted him, however, of brandishing a firearm during the crime.

Nonetheless, in sentencing Alleyne, the judge independently found that Alleyne should have known his accomplice would brandish a firearm during the robbery – a finding that added two additional years to Alleyne’s  sentence above the mandatory minimum of five years. Unlike a jury, which is tasked with finding guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the judge made this finding under the much lower standard of “preponderance of the evidence.”

It is easy to view Alleyne and his accomplice as serious criminals who may very well deserve to serve either a five or a seven-year sentence. But allowing a judge the discretion impinges on a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that a judge cannot use this discretion to increase a defendant’s sentence above the maximum allowable sentence. And a similar rationale prompted a controversial but landscape-changing decision to limit the enforceability of federal sentencing guidelines.

Although the severity of statutory sentencing schemes has led to grossly unjust results, particularly in drug crimes, their purpose was and is to limit the variability and bias that can be introduced by any given judge in imposing a criminal sentence. Letting judges make factual determinations that are the purview of the jury undermines this goal – and allows for the sorts of even longer prison terms that have contributed to our ever-bloated prison population.

Somewhat surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this case on the argument that an earlier high court decision on just this issue was wrongly decided. With four new justices since the 2002 decision and Justice Stephen Breyer on the fence, the Supreme Court now has a second chance to get it right.