Supreme Court Chips Away At Judges’ Power To Ratchet Up Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory minimum prison sentences, statutorily imposed by legislatures, are among the major contributors to the U.S. incarceration epidemic. Many federal judges have recognized the injustice of these sentences, and lament that acts of Congress have tied their hands to issue sentences below the mandatory minimums, particularly when it comes to low-level drug offenders. Nevertheless, judges often exercise their authority to hand down sentences above the floor set by law.

In a decision issued Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a splintered 5-4 ruling that judges do not get to raise the floor itself when deciding a criminal defendant’s sentence:

Any fact that, by law, increases the penalty for a crime is an “element” that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. Mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime. It follows, then, that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an “element” that must be submitted to the jury.

The case involved Allen Alleyne, who 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. The crime Alleyne was convicted of has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Had the jury determined that he brandished a firearm, the minimum would have been seven years.

Nonetheless, in sentencing Alleyne, the judge independently found that Alleyne should have known his accomplice would brandish a firearm during the robbery – thus bumping Alleyne up to the seven year minimum sentence. 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.” The judge then sentenced Alleyne to the (false) minimum of seven years.

This ruling may have a limited impact, as it does nothing to alter draconian mandatory minimum sentences, and judges still maintain significant discretion to sentence above the mandatory minimum, even without making findings that should have been left to the jury. As a practical matter, its impact may be limited to cases such as this one where a judge simultaneously sentences a criminal defendant to what he believes to be the statutory minimum and gets that minimum sentence wrong.

As sentencing expert Doug Berman points out, the case’s most significant consequence may be that it signals the start of a trend toward putting more fact-finding decisions that influence judges’ calculations into the hands of the jury — a trend that could mitigate some of the harshest sentences doled out by judges. Federal District Judge Mark Bennett, who has been a vocal critic of both mandatory minimum sentences and stringent federal sentencing guidelines, recounted just this past weekend how his own survey of jurors has revealed the disconnect between public perceptions of a just sentence, and those imposed by mandatory minimums and federal guidelines:

The public is tough on crime except when they’re in an actual case. For 19 years after every criminal trial when the jury has found the defendant guilty, I ask them to write down … what you think would be an appropriate sentence for this defendant. Never once. Never once has a juror put down a sentence that even approaches what the likely [federal guideline or mandatory minimum] sentence would be. And I live in one of the most conservative parts of the United States.

Bennett’s comments came during a panel at the American Constitution Society’s national convention on the U.S. epidemic of mass incarceration, which even the Congressional Research Service has found is fueled in large part by mandatory minimum sentences. While today’s ruling shed light on these sentences, it will likely take another act of Congress to meaningfully mitigate their consequences.