Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Bookmark: (Opinion)


An Unfair Federal Sentencing System Has Rightly Been Overturned by The
U.S. Supreme Court - but Sensible Guidelines Are Still Needed.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the current sentencing
system violates a person's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.
Judges have been forced to impose tougher sentences when certain
factors are present - such as whether a convict was armed - but those
facts are considered after the jury trial.

The Court also found, however, that as long as the sentencing
guidelines aren't mandatory they don't violate a person's
constitutional rights.

The 17-year-old guidelines were meant to make criminal sentencing more
uniform, and that in itself was a good goal. Sentences for similar
crimes could vary widely from court to court, and often that meant
greater sentences for racial minorities who committed the same crimes
as whites.

The system also aimed to impose tougher sentences on violent crimes.
It worked, and crime rates are going down.

Those federal guidelines also meant, however, that some sentences were
overly harsh. A Utah resident was sentenced to 55 years in prison for
dealing marijuana simply because he was carrying a gun at the time,
for instance. Most rapists and some murderers aren't handed down such

The Court's second finding, however, said that as long as guidelines
are discretionary - rather than mandatory - they can remain in place.

That leaves much open to question. Will judges hand down sentences
that are even harsher? The ruling seems to leave that possibility open.

The ruling also still allows judges to make sentencing decisions based
on information presented after the jury trial. That's a mistake. No
one should be convicted on allegations that aren't proven before a
jury to be true.

This ruling does, however, at least give judges the leeway to consider
extenuating circumstances and reject sentences that are unfair. It
also may put more pressure on prosecutors to prove aggravating factors
at trial if they want to ensure tougher sentences.

Members of Congress are already talking about reworking the sentencing
guidelines, and they should. It's possible to protect the public while
still allowing judges the flexibility to make decisions that protect
the rights of individuals. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake