Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2005 Globe Newspaper Company
Bookmark: (Opinion)


THE SUPREME Court has given the federal judicial system the
opportunity to benefit from sentencing guidelines without the rigid
strictures contained in the federal sentencing law. Even though some
members of Congress are angry that the court nullified part of that
law, they ought to delay any adjustment until judges have had a chance
to work under the revised system.

A five-justice majority said the sentencing law gave prosecutors and
judges too much discretion in toughening a sentence after the jury
rendered a guilty verdict. Prosecutors were allowed to present
evidence to the judge before sentencing that was unavailable to the
jury and met a lesser standard of proof. The justices, in an opinion
written by John Paul Stevens, concluded that this procedure abridged a
defendant's right to a trial by jury as guaranteed by the Sixth
Amendment to the Constitution.

But the court did not rule that prosecutors were barred from
presenting this additional evidence. It was Justice Stephen G. Breyer,
who disagreed with Stevens's conclusion, who wrote the remedy section
of the opinion. He said judges could still receive the background
information but that the sentencing guidelines themselves would be
advisory, not mandatory.

Breyer did not mention it by name, but the opinion voids the Feeney
Amendment, approved by Congress in 2003 to drastically limit federal
judges' discretion in sentencing. Named after its sponsor,
Representative Tom Feeney, Republican of Florida, it was a reaction to
judges' imposition of sentences lighter than those in the guidelines.
As many judges know, this amendment was an unwarranted attack on
judicial autonomy.

When it comes to sentencing, judges know the facts of the case and the
circumstances that have shaped a defendant's actions far better than
Congress. Judges also deserve the benefit of additional evidence
supplied by prosecutors. But prosecutors, like Congress, tend to
prefer long sentences, rigidly imposed. Ninety-seven percent of cases
in federal court result in plea bargains, in which a prosecutor can
reduce a charge in exchange for a defendant's cooperation. The
extraordinary leeway allowed prosecutors ought to be matched by
flexibility for judges. Breyer's decision puts the federal judicial
system in better balance.

"The ball now lies in Congress' court," Breyer wrote. As expected,
Feeney denounced the ruling as an "egregious overreach," and Senator
Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, promised remedial
legislation. The Feeney Amendment was rushed, without hearings or
other careful consideration of its impact, onto a bill to protect
children from kidnappers. Congress should not make the same mistake
again. It should allow the federal judiciary time to adapt the
sentencing guidelines to the needs of justice. 
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