A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could afford judges greater freedom when deciding prison sentences.
The unanimous decision, delivered April 3, said courts may consider whether a defendant has already been given a mandatory minimum sentence for one crime when determining an appropriate sentence for another charge.
The ruling would apply to cases where the defendant faces a charge with a mandatory minimum sentence, as well as additional charges.
“The question was, when you have a consecutive sentence — where you have one after the other, and the first one is a very large mandatory minimum — can the courts shorten the second one taking into account the very, very long mandatory minimum?” said Elliot Engstrom, a lawyer and fellow at Elon Law School.
Theoretically, mandatory minimums are used as a disincentive to commit certain crimes by punishing those who commit them more harshly, Engstrom said. But he said the downside of this concept is that the punishment might not always fit the crime.
“Traditionally, courts have a lot of flexibility when imposing sentences because courts are there — their boots are on the ground and they know the specific facts of the case,” he said. “Because they know the particular facts of the case, they can put together the most just sentence. Mandatory minimums are an attempt to take some of that flexibility away.”
Blake Dodge, a junior at UNC and former legal researcher and communications assistant for Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Washington, said the court's decision affirms the importance of judicial discretion.
“A judge should be able to judge, and so, in that sense, you can think of judicial discretion and mandatory minimums as antithetical because mandatory minimums prescribe a sentence based on the black-and-white circumstances of a crime,” she said.
Mandatory minimums can reinforce harmful perceptions about criminals and criminal justice while not taking into account individual circumstances, UNC senior Ana Dougherty said.
“We tend to think of them in a very narrow way, as people who have transgressed and need to be contained and controlled and separated from everyone as ‘problem people,’” Dougherty, co-chair of UNC's Criminal Justice Awareness and Action, said.
Dodge said criminal justice reform is important but that reform advocates, especially young people, often do not focus enough on problems caused by mandatory minimum sentences.
“Everyone is on board to talk about children’s rights in the juvenile justice system and racial bias in the justice system and private prisons, but the fact that no one knows what a mandatory minimum sentence is is really unfortunate,” she said. “It breaks my heart that it’s a critical part of the criminal justice reform conversation, but it’s not at the forefront of those conversations.”
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said judges should have the ability to consider all the factors and all the circumstances when fashioning an appropriate sentence. She said she thinks this Supreme Court decision was a positive step.
"It’s not the end of mandatory minimums, but it is certainly an important decision in the fight to expand and support judicial discretion in sentencing, which is something we very much believe in,” Price said.
Dodge said the case is a win-win, regardless of political leanings.
Conservatives opposed to government intervention and liberals concerned with racial oppression in the criminal justice system might both agree with this ruling, Dodge said.
"It’s a win really for anyone who thinks that crime sentences should be judged on a case-by-case basis and not denoted by some kind of crude chart.”
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