[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Tuesday unanimously decided in Dean v. United States [opinion, PDF] that trial courts could consider mandatory minimums when imposing sentences for other underlying offenses. In Dean, the appellant had been convicted of several robbery and firearm charges and two additional charges of ” possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §924,” which carried mandatory minimums totalling 30 years. At sentencing, Dean asked that the judge consider those mandatory minimums when calculating an appropriate sentence. This was because punishment for the other charges was to be imposed “in addition to the punishment provided for [the predicate] crime,” the judge, however, interpreted the statute to mean that additional sentences would have to be calculated independent of any mandatory minimums and Dean appealed.
The debate over the constitutionality of mandatory minimums has been on-going. Last year the Maryland Senate unanimously approved a landmark criminal justice bill [JURIST report], known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, which would significantly change how non-violent drug offenders are sentenced, shifting focus from prison to treatment. The changes in the sentencing structure would allow the state to save money on prison costs and allow those serving mandatory minimums to appeal their sentences. In 2015 the US Senate voted to move forward on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 [JURIST report] , which would cut back on mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. Several police chiefs were concerned about reducing sentences, including Chief Will Johnson of Arlington, Texas, who noted that the government has been hesitant to assist with drug and mental health treatments as alternatives to incarceration. Following the introduction of the bill, US President Barack Obama argued for overhauling the nation’s sentencing laws in front of top law enforcement officials at the 122nd Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference and Exposition. The president argued that placing large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders in prison was neither fair nor an effective way of combating crime, stating that “it is possible for us to come up with strategies that effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration.”