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More discretion for judges

The Supreme Court ruled appropriately that federal sentencing guidelines violate the right to a jury trial. Congress should resist the urge to overreact.

A Times Editorial
Published January 15, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the way federal judges determine sentences, ruling they no longer are required to follow sentencing guidelines that have been in place for two decades. That additional discretion is welcome because the guidelines often have resulted in unduly harsh sentences, and Congress should resist demands by some conservative Republicans to reinstate rigid controls.

The court began moving down this road when it overturned the state of Washington's sentencing guidelines last year and concluded they violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Now prosecutors often charge defendants only with the crimes that can be most easily proven. Then they present the judge at sentencing with other allegations that were not presented to the jury, and a judge can use those allegations to justify a tougher sentence.

For example, in the case considered by the Supreme Court, a prosecutor offered evidence to the jury that a defendant possessed 92.5 grams of crack cocaine. The defendant was convicted of possessing more than 50 grams. But at sentencing the judge concluded the defendant had 658.5 grams. The defendant was given a 30-year sentence based on the larger amount.

In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing guidelines violated the right to a jury trial by allowing such situations to occur. It concluded no fact considered by a judge may result in increasing a defendant's sentence beyond what is supported by the jury's conviction. But even as they eliminated that judicial flexibility, the justices provided judges with far more independence by making the sentencing guidelines discretionary rather than mandatory.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets much of the credit. She switched sides and joined the four justices who dissented in the first part of the ruling to form a different 5-4 majority that ruled the guidelines must be consulted but are only advisory. While that may result in different sentences by different federal judges for similar crimes, judges no longer will be rigidly bound by guidelines many considered to be too harsh - particularly for first-time drug offenders. It will be up to appellate courts to see that the new flexibility does not result in wildly different sentences, the very problem the guidelines tried to correct.

This will not be the final word. The court opinion will trigger congressional hearings. The fight between the legislative and judicial branches to set the rules for punishing criminals will begin anew, and conservatives will complain about lenient judges and demand mandatory penalties. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who has never accepted the idea of an independent judiciary, already has overreacted by calling the court opinion an "egregious overreach." But Congress should move slowly and use this as an opportunity for a thorough review of both mandatory minimum laws and sentencing guidelines.

The Supreme Court correctly returned fact-finding to the jury and provided more flexibility for judges to put those facts into context and impose appropriate sentences. Congress should see how it works, avoid the temptation to overreact - and drop the tough-on-crime chest-thumping.

[Last modified January 15, 2005, 01:12:05]


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