In an important Monday ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against government authorities seeking to use mandatory minimum sentences to keep an individual in prison for what’s easily discernible as an excessively long time.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion that using mandatory minimum sentences for a set of distinct charges to create the longest possible prison sentence for a defendant flies in the face of the logic that underlies the very existence of the prison system in the first place.
In theory, American prisons aren’t meant to just inflict punitive punishments; rather, in Roberts’s words, they’re meant to address the issues of “just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.”
What logic is there, in the Supreme Court’s assessment, in extending a defendant’s time in prison beyond an already lengthy mandatory minimum sentence via imposing another mandatory minimum sentence on top of the first one?
The case prompting this decision from the Supreme Court was Dean vs. United States, which brought with it the charge from an Iowa man’s lawyers that he had been sentenced unfairly. Levon Dean was sentenced by employing mandatory minimum sentencing rules on both robbery and firearms charges; adding those two mandatory minimum sentences together leaves Dean facing 33 years in prison.
However, his lawyers argued, the mandatory minimum sentence for one of the crimes was long enough to cover the mandatory minimum sentence for the other crime, so there was no reason for the sentencing court to tack the two mandatory minimums together.
The Supreme Court ruled in Dean’s favor, saying that there was no reason, either in legal precedent or in judicial logic, for the courts to ignore concurrent punishments for crimes when determining appropriate sentences for any given infraction.
The court’s opinion reads, in part:
‘Dean committed the two robberies at issue here when he was 23 years old. That he will not be released from prison until well after his fiftieth birthday because of the convictions surely bears on whether… still more incarceration is necessary to protect the public. Likewise, in considering “the need for the sentence imposed … to afford adequate deterrence,” the District Court could not reasonably ignore the deterrent effect of Dean’s 30-year mandatory minimum.’
This ruling comes as the issues of mandatory minimum sentences being used to dish out punishments unfairly continues to rage across the nation.
Kevin Ring, the president of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) Foundation, commented of the ruling that he and his organization were “pleased, obviously” with the outcome. He added that he thinks “it’s a case where the court was reluctant to take sentencing discretion away from judges,” since at oral arguments in February it wasn’t at all clear which way the court would ultimately rule.
FAMM says of itself on its website that since 1991 it “has worked to eliminate mandatory sentencing laws and promote sentencing policies rooted in the fundamental American values of individualized justice, fairness, proportionality, and respect for liberty and due process.”
The fact that minority defendants often face harsher sentences is key to arguments against mandatory minimum sentences.
With Trump SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch often touting his record of handing out rulings that are in strict accordance with the conventional interpretation of the law, it’s definitely not clear how he would have ruled in this case had he been on the bench.
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