U.S. Supreme Court Holds Juries, Not Judges, Must Make Findings That Set Mandatory Minimum Sentences


The Supreme Court has extended to mandatory minimum sentences the rule that juries, not judges, must determine facts that increase a defendant’s potential punishment.

The Court’s June 17, 2013, decision in Alleyne v. United Statesfollows the reasoning of its 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires that a jury, not a judge, determine any fact that increases the punishment range.

Two years later, the Court in Harris v. United States reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that facts that increased a mandatory minimum sentence, rather than the increase in the statutory maximum at issue in Apprendi, could be found by a judge acting alone.

In Alleyne, the Court overruled Harris, reasoning that that there was “no basis in principle or logic to distinguish facts that raise the maximum from those that increase the minimum.” Apprendi necessarily applies not only to facts that increase the ceiling, the Court held, but also to those that increase the floor, because a fact that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence changes the range of sentences to which the defendant is exposed.

Here, the sentencing range supported by the jury’s verdict was five years’ imprisonment to life, but the judge, rather than the jury, found brandishing of a weapon. This fact increased the penalty to which Mr. Alleyne was subjected and violated his Sixth Amendment rights.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require harsh, automatic prison terms for defendants convicted of certain federal and state crimes. Popular with “tough-on-crime” politicians, mandatory sentencing laws are a major reason why prison populations have increased dramatically in recent decades, resulting in prison overcrowding, exhorbitant costs to taxpayers, and excessive sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders. In the sixteen-year period through fiscal 2011, the annual number of federal inmates increased from 37,091 to 76,216, with mandatory minimum sentences a driving factor.