Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2005 The Denver Post Corp
Bookmark: (Opinion)


This week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down part of the
18-year-old federal sentencing guidelines will restore some balance to
a system that has given too much influence to prosecution and not
enough to the bench.

The guidelines mandated precise prison terms based on specific
circumstances and were originally created to bring uniformity to the
sentences imposed by different judges for similar crimes. But they
ultimately removed judicial discretion, forcing judges to impose
prison time that often seemed out of whack with the crime, if not
downright unjust.

They also allowed judges to tack on extra prison time based on
evidence never considered by a jury, violating the Sixth Amendment
right to a trial by jury, the court said.

The court's 5-4 ruling seems to have left in place a system that will
guide a judge's discretion at sentencing while not forcing judges to
be bound and gagged by the guidelines. As Justice Stephen G. Breyer
wrote for the majority, the ruling "requires a sentencing court to
consider Guidelines (as) ranges ... but it permits the court to tailor
the sentence in light of other statutory concerns as well."

To be sure, the ruling raises some questions. Will past cases be
reopened, for instance? And for those cases now on appeal, will there
be a slew of sentence rollbacks? Of critical importance, will Congress
step in and attempt to curtail the judicial discretion that the court
has just seen fit to extend? Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen
Specter, R-Pa., hinted after Wednesday's ruling that legislation may
follow to "establish a sentencing method that will be appropriately
tough on career criminals, fair and consistent with constitutional

We urge Congress to allow the system to work and then review the
results. We believe the majority of judges will sentence intelligently
and responsibly and earn the trust placed in them by American
citizens. At the very least, Specter should allow the federal
sentencing commission time to recommend reforms.

We share the concern of experts who say the guidelines ensured similar
treatment of defendants who committed similar crimes and that the
change presents the possibility that sentences for the same crime will
be vastly dissimilar from one jurisdiction to the next. But the
appeals process can correct any injustice.

For now, the Supreme Court has fashioned a fair and reasonable remedy
that gives federal judges discretion to do their jobs.
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