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.

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