Truth in Convicting: Understanding and Evaluating Apprendi

Posted: 19 Dec 2000

See all articles by Alan C. Michaels

Alan C. Michaels

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law


In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 120 S. Ct. 2348 (2000), a closely divided Supreme Court held that a twelve-year prison term imposed under a New Jersey law that raised the maximum sentence for the defendant's crime from ten to twenty years imprisonment upon a judge's post-conviction finding that the crime was committed "with a purpose to intimidate an individual ... because of race," violated the Constitution. Apprendi is the most recent decision in a series of cases over the past thirty years in which the Court has struggled to determine the constitutional limits on the legislature's discretion in defining crimes and their elements. This article closely examines Apprendi and concludes that Apprendi's holding, which could be described as a "truth-in-convicting" rule, is modest in scope but nonetheless significant.

After exploring Apprendi's immediate ramifications, including its effect on federal drug prosecutions under 21 U.S.C. Section 841, the article draws two further conclusions. First, in returning to this difficult area, the Court was wise to take a cautious, "rule-based" first step. Rather than doing too much or too little, the Court made a wise choice under the circumstances. Second, advocates of guidelines sentencing systems ought to welcome, rather than fear, Apprendi's gentle but important restriction on legislative power. Had even Apprendi's limited substantive restriction on sentencing been rejected, sentencing systems would likely have faced increased pressure for even more intrusive procedural requirements.

Suggested Citation

Michaels, Alan C., Truth in Convicting: Understanding and Evaluating Apprendi. Available at SSRN:

Alan C. Michaels (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

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