Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2005
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2005 The New York Times Company


The Supreme Court sent a jolt through the criminal justice system this
week by ruling that judges are not required to follow the federal
sentencing guidelines. The ruling, which makes the guidelines merely
advisory, strikes a judicious balance between two conflicting
interests: the goal of making sentences for similar crimes equivalent,
and the desire to allow judges flexibility to take into account the
circumstances of particular crimes and criminals.

There is already talk in Congress about trying to undo the Supreme
Court's decision. That would be a serious mistake.

Congress passed the sentencing guidelines in the mid-1980's, with
bipartisan support, in an attempt to make criminal sentences in
federal cases more uniform. While the guidelines have been praised for
doing just that, they have also been criticized for contributing to
the nation's prison overpopulation. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is
hardly a liberal on criminal justice issues, told the American Bar
Association in 2003 that the sentencing guidelines were too harsh and
inflexible. Some trial judges have complained that the guidelines have
unduly tied their hands, compelling them to impose sentences that they
believe did not fit the crimes before them.

The guidelines became legally vulnerable last June when the Supreme
Court struck down Washington State's sentencing guidelines. The court
ruled that they violated the Sixth Amendment because they required
judges to take factors into account in sentencing, like the harm
caused by the crime, that were never submitted to a jury. Not
unexpectedly, the court has now extended the logic of that decision to
the federal guidelines.

What is most notable about this week's decision is that, rather than
tossing out the federal guidelines completely, the court ruled that
judges must still "consult" them in making sentencing decisions. To
ensure that this is not an empty formality, appeals courts will then
review the sentencing decisions - and the use of the guidelines - for
"reasonableness." It remains to be seen how this will work in
practice, but the general idea of trying to impose uniformity but not
rigidity is a good one.

In recent years, conservatives in Congress have complained about
judges' failing to follow the guidelines, and Congress has taken steps
to monitor individual judges' sentencing practices. One leader of that
effort criticized this week's ruling as an "egregious overreach."
Rather than racing to try to limit or reverse the decision, its
opponents should wait to see how it works in practice. Otherwise,
Congress could rush through ill-considered legislation that once again
unduly tied judges' hands.

If the new procedures outlined by the court turn out to undermine
substantially the goals of the sentencing guidelines and make federal
punishments widely disparate and unfair, there will always be time
later for Congress to consider enacting new legislation. For now,
everyone should step back and give federal trial judges - as they
consult the sentencing guidelines and are reviewed by appellate courts
- - a chance to show that they can exercise their discretion wisely.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake