Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2005 Newsday Inc.
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


They Should Be Judicial in Using New Freedom to Sentence the Guilty 						

Federal judges, freed from the shackles of mandatory sentencing
guidelines by the Supreme Court Wednesday, should be very careful in
exercising their new discretion to sentence defendants as they see

The decades-old system of rigid guidelines deprived federal defendants
of their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The court made that
clear Wednesday when it ruled that the guidelines impermissibly
required judges to tack on additional prison time based on facts
jurors never heard.

The high court made the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory,
leaving it to appeals courts to decide when a sentence is

Prison sentences must now fall within the minimum and maximum times
spelled out by statute. Judges are no longer forced to follow
guidelines that require stiffer penalties based on findings in
post-trial sentencing proceedings of such things as the number of
victims in a fraud or a defendant's leadership role in a criminal conspiracy.

But Congress imposed the guidelines 21 years ago to eliminate
arbitrary differences in the amount of prison time imposed by various
judges around the country for similar crimes. Disparities involving
race were especially intolerable. The guidelines did deliver greater

An unwise return to the old, unreasonable sentencing disparities would
be an engraved invitation to Congress to wade in with new
restrictions. The court itself said the ball was now in Congress'
court. Lawmakers could, for instance, make the guidelines mandatory
once again and comply with the Constitution by simply requiring that
every fact considered in sentencing be proved beyond a reasonable
doubt before a jury. That would be an appropriate response to a
resurgence of wildly disparate sentences. But before going down that
road, Congress should give the new era of advisory guidelines ushered
in by the Supreme Court a chance to work.

There is an abiding tension between lawmakers and judges over the
hot-button issue of criminal penalties. Mandatory sentences and
sentencing guidelines have been used by Congress and many state
legislatures to wrest control away from judges who are too lenient to
suit the politicians' tastes. But judges need to have the latitude,
within statutory limits, to fit individual punishments to individual
circumstances. That's what the Supreme Court has delivered.
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