Revising the Approach of Mandatory Minimums

The Eighth Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This promise of protection against unjust punishment remains relevant and is subject to reinterpretation, especially in light of the drastic changes to the American penal system since the nation’s founding. Although directly contradictory case precedent exists that demands sentencing practices consider the character and actions of individual offenders, mandatory minimum sentencing remains permissible and frequently practiced. The D.C. Court of Appeals’ decision in United States v. Slatten (2017) highlights this contradiction and exemplifies how Eighth Amendment jurisprudence may move towards the abolition of mandatory minimums. In order to clarify Eighth Amendment case law, the U.S. Supreme Court should resolve inconsistencies between mandatory minimums and their prior decisions regarding judicial discretion in sentencing.

Despite often-contradictory case law, the Supreme Court has determined in several notable decisions that the Eighth Amendment demands that sentences remain proportional to the crimes which warrant them, directly challenging the concept of long mandatory minimum sentences. A prime example of this is Solem v. Helm (1983), in which Jerry Helm was convicted of writing a false check and sentenced to life in prison without parole because it was his seventh nonviolent felony offense, violating a law similar to a “three strike rule.” In their decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a court's proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment should be guided by objective criteria, including the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty.”[1] However, just eight years later in Harmelin v. Michigan (1991) in which Ronald Harmelin was convicted for possessing 672 grams of cocaine and sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without parole, the Supreme Court held that his punishment did not qualify as cruel and unusual. In the Court’s decision, the late Justice Scalia wrote that “the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee,”[2] directly contradicting the principle established in Solem. However, the Court has since returned to proportionality as implied or provided by the Eighth Amendment in cases such as Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010), which demand that juveniles face lesser punishment due to a proportional assessment of their lower culpability. In Graham v. Florida, in which Terrence Graham was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a parole violation, the Court explicitly claimed that “the concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment,”[3] opposing its conclusion in Harmelin. The Court’s deviance from proportionality in Harmelin v. Michigan and subsequent re-adoption of the doctrine thereafter necessitates a clarification of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

Existing case law also mandates that sentences account for the individual circumstances of each case, which further undermines the practice of mandatory minimums. In Woodson v. North Carolina (1976), James Woodson was convicted of first-degree murder for committing an armed robbery of a convenience store and was sentenced to death — the mandatory minimum sentence for that charge. The Supreme Court ruled against his sentence, concluding that “individualizing sentencing determinations” constitutes a “constitutional imperative” rather than “simply enlightened policy.”[4] According to their decision, this is necessary because the Eighth Amendment is based on a respect for the human dignity of offenders. This dignity “requires consideration of the character and record of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense as a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death.”[5] Although this decision only concerns those cases where the death penalty is in question, the Woodson decision sets clear constitutional precedent regarding the philosophy of individualized sentencing. This demands a total reconsideration of mandatory minimums, as the amount of judicial discretion demanded in Woodson is impossible to maintain when statutes mandate punishments with no consideration for individual offenders.

The question of ensuring both proportionally and individually-tailored sentences surfaced in United States v. Slatten (2017), decided by the D.C. Court of Appeals, in which Nicholas Slatten and three co-defendants were convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which prohibits the use of machine guns and destructive devices to commit violent crimes. All four of the appellants had worked for Blackwater Worldwide Security in Iraq providing security for diplomats, with their convictions stemming from a firefight following the detonation of a car bomb. Slatten was sentenced to life in prison and his co-defendants received the mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. The case resulted in a narrow ruling in which the D.C. Court of Appeals determined that “this mandatory sentence based solely on the type of weapons…is grossly disproportionate to their culpability for using government-issued weapons in a war zone.”[6] Although the Court of Appeals restricted their ruling to remain very narrow, the case incorporated a discussion of mandatory minimum sentences and represents hope for the future abolition of mandatory minimums.

While claiming that mandatory minimums must not apply to the defendants in Slatten, the D.C. Court of Appeals furthermore makes a convincing argument against their constitutionality. The decision asserts that “the defendants’ clean criminal records weigh against the imposition of a harsh, mandatory sentence.”[7] Furthermore, the imposition of the same sentence for Slatten’s three co-defendants “fails to truly account for the culpability of Slough, Heard, and Liberty individually”[8] due to the variations in the exact charges against each of them. When remanding the case for resentencing, the opinion states that “a more prudent way to sentence would be to examine each defendant as an individual, taking into account all of the aggravating and mitigating factors typically considered.”[9] The ruling claims that their mandatory sentences violate the “unusual” requirement in the Eighth Amendment. This is because the sentences use the sentencing component of the statute in a way unintended by Congress, and “instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.[10]

By drawing on the concepts of proportionality and individual consideration, the Slatten opinion undermines mandatory minimums despite its narrow focus. Should subsequent cases adopt the logic used in the Slatten decision, American courts could move towards a ban on mandatory minimums on the grounds that they are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Mandatory minimums necessarily preclude any specific considerations in sentencing. They also impose grossly disproportionate penalties, especially for non-violent drug offenders, and rule out any consideration of specific circumstances, even when existing case law demands both of these practices. The U.S. Supreme Court must resolve this logical disparity in order to clarify the meaning of the Eighth Amendment as applied to mandatory minimums and create a more useful doctrine.

[1] Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983). Justia Law. Accessed October 27, 2018.

[2] Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991). Justia Law. Accessed October 27, 2018.

[3] Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). Justia Law. Accessed October 27, 2018.

[4] Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976). Justia Law. Accessed October 27, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] United States v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (D.C. Cir. 2017). Justia Law. Accessed October 27, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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