Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jan 2005
Source: Des Moines Register (IA)
Copyright: 2005 The Des Moines Register.
Note: by Register Editorial Board
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Opinion)


The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision striking down federal 
criminal-sentencing rules was a welcome step toward restoring judges' 
discretion and flexibility. But the ruling also threw gasoline on a 
smoldering dispute between Congress and the federal courts.

The court declared that sentencing "guidelines" created by Congress in 1987 
violate criminal defendants' Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The 
ruling cheered federal judges who have chafed under the rigid rules. At the 
same time, the court invited Congress to come back with something even 
worse. History shows that lawmakers will be only too happy to oblige.

The so-called guidelines - in fact mandatory rules written by a sentencing 
commission - prescribed uniform prison sentences for federal crimes. 
Sentences were based on a mathematical formula broken down into six-month 
increments that factor in the myriad details of a particular crime. Those 
factors - whether a gun was used, the amount of illegal drugs involved, the 
defendant's criminal history - could add or subtract years in a prison 

The court found the sentencing rules unconstitutional because judges 
factored them into the calculation after conviction. The factors weren't 
proved before a jury, as explicitly required by the Sixth Amendment. On 
this point, the court was exactly right: Under the rules, prosecutors could 
introduce a long list of "facts" in the post-conviction sentencing process 
that could double a convict's time served in prison.

That left the court to decide what should guide judges. Dividing along a 
different 5-4 fault line, the court said the sentencing guidelines are, in 
fact, just guidelines. Federal judges are free to apply them or not, and 
the question of whether they get it right will be determined by federal 
appeals courts.

Although that makes sense, it is not going down well with members of 
Congress who don't trust federal judges to be tough on criminals. They have 
a simple solution: Enact more mandatory minimum sentences that would 
completely tie judges' hands.

Thus, the sentencing ruling is certain to aggravate the battle between 
Congress and the courts over which side has the upper hand in criminal 

The reality, however, is that in creating the guidelines, Congress 
transferred the real power to federal prosecutors: Ninety-seven out of 100 
federal criminal defendants plead guilty in deals cut with U.S. attorneys 
to avoid risking even longer sentences. Thus, career prosecutors make 
critical decisions in the vast majority of cases before they get to the 
courtroom. And, unlike federal judges, U.S. attorneys are not insulated by 
lifetime tenure from shifting political winds.

The federal sentencing process has put more than 175,000 men and women in 
federal prisons. Many of them, convicted of low-level drug crimes, will 
spend 20 or 30 years behind bars.

There are no simple fixes for this badly broken system. A better approach 
would be for Congress to set upper and lower limits for prison sentences 
and leave it to the judges who are closest to each case to make the right 
decision. For now, Congress ought to leave things alone and see how the 
process works under the court's approach. 
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