Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: Springfield News-Leader (MO)
Copyright: 2005 The Springfield News-Leader
Note: The 124 page ruling is on line as a .pdf document at
Also: to help understand the decision the blog of Douglas A. Berman, 
Professor of Law has been 


Sentencing Guidelines Ignored Circumstances.

The one thing that could be said for federal sentencing guidelines is that 
they brought certainty and consistency to criminal court.

A fractured U.S. Supreme Court decision this week threw all that out
the window. The trade-off, though, might be something more closely
resembling justice.

The court's twin decisions, superficially at odds with each other, are
a statement on just how difficult an issue this is. In one case, the
court said judges cannot lengthen a sentence based on facts that were
not presented to a jury. Judges, at the prodding of prosecutors, have
been adding years to sentences when there was a preponderance of
evidence that a defendant had more drugs than a jury convicted him of
possessing, for instance.

But then, in the next case, and with the switch of a single vote, the
court said the federal sentencing guidelines cannot be mandatory.
Judges, the court said, should have the freedom to assess reasonable

The court did not define "reasonable," leaving prosecutors and defense
attorneys nervous about where these rulings could lead.

This is natural. The sentencing guidelines have been in place for
nearly two decades (although the term "guidelines" is misleading; the
sentences are mandatory.) They were created in an effort to bring
consistency to federal sentences and to thwart judges who were
considered soft on criminals. They allowed judges to lengthen a
sentence, but made it exceedingly difficult to shorten one.

This shifted power over prison terms to prosecutors, who essentially
determined how long a defendant would serve by the charges filed
against him or her.

The court's decision restores balance. The justices said judges should
consult the guidelines but not be bound by them. The ruling left room
for independent judgment.

For all the honorable intentions behind the guidelines, what they
actually created was cookie-cutter justice. They were the same
one-size-fits-all prescription Congress has had for so many issues,
usually with disastrous results.

The federal guidelines sought to treat two people charged with the
same crime the same, ignoring differences between cases. The
guidelines could result in draconian sentences when a lighter hand was
called for.

"For the Supreme Court to rule on this issue in such a dramatic way is
a powerful indication the tough-on-crime era is leading the way to a
smart-on-crime era," said criminologist Jeff London, an assistant
professor at Southwest Missouri State University.

Congress will be tempted to revert to the tough-on-crime era. We urge
it to give the court's ruling, vague though it may be, time to work
itself out. Consistency may be a virtue, but justice is the greater
goal. Judges should have the means to see that it is done.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake