SCOTUS: Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences in Jury's Hands

The Supreme Court ruled that mandatory minimum sentences should be based on facts proven to a jury.

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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a jury, not a judge, should have the final say on facts that impose mandatory minimum sentences for criminals.

In particular, the 5-4 ruling will make it harder to impose minimum sentences on drug offenders, because they are among the most frequent to receive those sentences. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, likewise praised the ruling. "There are drug mandatory minimums that before today could be imposed without constitutional protection of a jury finding - [the ruling] ends that practice," she says.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums has long spoken out against what they see as unduly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other offenders, such as an April case in which John Horner, 46, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling painkillers.

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Monday's ruling may also save taxpayers money. A 1997 report by the Rand Corporation on the cost of mandatory minimums, the most recent report on the subject, found mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders cost taxpayers far more money than treating them — primarily because of the high cost of incarceration.

Proponents of mandatory minimums, however, have long argued that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders aren't who they're worried about.

"Mandatory minimum sentences are keeping serious offenders off our streets longer, keeping our communities safer," Michael J. Sullivan, who was head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, argued in a 2009 hearing on the matter.

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But Monday's ruling represents the latest wave in a rising tide of public opinion against that sentiment, In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine. In early June, the House announced the formation of an Overcriminalization Task Force to explore how federal code may be going too far on minor offenses. And on Monday, a number of prominent black leaders gathered on Capitol Hill to protest the Obama administration's so-called "war on drugs" — because they said it was incarcerating too many drug offenders.

Some 2.3 million Americans are currently in prison, representing a more than 300 percent since 1980, according to a recent report by NPR.

"I think we are at a moment of consideration on mandatory minimums," says Mauer. "It's [asking] the question: does this represent cruel and unusual punishment?"

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