The Facts

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions

The issue currently before Congress stems from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2004, in which the Court ruled that only juries—not judges—can determine aggravating factors and thereby add time to prison sentences. The Court’s decision in Blakely v. Washington called into question the sentencing guidelines in nearly a dozen states. It also called into question the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Following the ruling, many district courts issued decisions interpreting the impact of the Court’s Blakely opinion on their respective districts.

Despite the fact that the Blakely decision did not directly challenge the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, enough confusion ensued following the ruling (with the district courts interpreting the decision) to necessitate the Supreme Court hearing two cases: United States v. Booker and United States v. Fanfan. The Court’s decisions in these cases centered on the question of whether the Blakely decision applied to the federal sentencing system.

On January 12, 2005, the Court ruled in United States v. Booker that it is unconstitutional to force federal judges to increase sentences based on facts not presented to and found by a jury. Prior to this ruling, federal judges regularly increased sentences in this manner under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

In United States v. Fanfan, a companion opinion issued the same day, the Supreme Court declared that the sentencing ranges contained in the Sentencing Guidelines, which judges were previously required to follow, should be treated only as advisory. This ruling does not, however, affect mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress.

Mandatory Minimums

In 1986, sparked by the cocaine-overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias, Congress enacted a series of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. These laws—which often produce sentences of five years, ten years, or more—are based on the weight or amount of a drug possessed and whether the defendant was in the presence of a firearm. Under these mandatory minimum sentencing laws, federal judges are prevented from considering many factors that ordinarily would be likely to reduce a sentence.

These laws have resulted in sentences that are outrageously long—and many judges explicitly say they disagree with the sentences they are forced to impose. One recent example of the effect of mandatory minimum sentencing laws is a 25-year old Utah man who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana to undercover police on three occasions—because he happened to have a gun holstered on his ankle. Read his story and others here.

  • Since mandatory minimum sentencing first began for drug offenders, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has increased by more than 2,100%, from $220 million in 1986 to about $4.4 billion in 2004.
  • Incarcerating a drug offender costs $22,000 annually. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, the number of drug offenders in federal prison grew from 25% of the total inmate population in 1981 to 60% in 2001.
  • The United States currently incarcerates more than 2.2 million inmates, at a rate of every one in 143 people (contrasted with approximately one in 1000 in England, Italy, France, and Germany).