Sentencing policy on trial

Ruling: A Boston judge works to preserve the jury's role in American justice.

July 12, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - From his chambers overlooking Boston Harbor, Judge William G. Young has watched with barely constrained delight the fallout from a Supreme Court ruling that has cast doubt on sentencing practices across the country.

Less than a week before the high court delivered its unexpected ruling, Young, the chief U.S. District Court judge for Massachusetts, unleashed his own blunt critique of the way punishment is handed out. He declared federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional in a scathing, 177-page decision that could have made him a lonely figure in the judiciary.

Instead, Young has found plenty of company.

In the two weeks since the high court's decision in the case of Blakely vs. Washington that juries, not judges, must decide whether aggravating factors exist that could increase criminal sentences, at least four more federal judges have held that the current federal sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional.

Other judges have reduced jail time for convicted criminals and are bracing for appeals by the approximately 270,000 inmates jailed under the kind of sentencing schedules now under scrutiny. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to discuss the implications. Prosecutors are rethinking how they bring charges, and legal scholars say the Supreme Court might have to return from its summer recess to hear an appeal on the issue.

Amid all the legal hand-wringing, Boston's Young views the current turmoil as a good thing.

"Blakely puts American juries squarely between the accused and the jailhouse door, and that is right," he said in an interview. "This idea that somehow a judge is going to know more than 12 people of the community - all of my professional experience says that is not the case."

Nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan, Young, 64, has served 19 years on the federal bench in Massachusetts. Instead of the customary portraits of judges hanging on his courtroom walls, he has ship portraits painted by his father. He also has a track record for rippling the waters.

`Diminishing' the jury

While presiding over the high-profile case against Richard C. Reid, who was accused of trying to detonate a bomb in his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight, Young leveled criticism at the government's creation of military tribunals for terrorism suspects, saying they had "the effect of diminishing the American jury, once the central feature of American justice."

Last summer, Young penned an open letter to federal judges that again raised concerns about the gradually vanishing jury trial. Writing that "unwelcome truths are nevertheless true," Young said the jury system was withering away and then asked his colleagues across the country: "Do you care?"

In his decision released just before the Blakely ruling, Young took the rare step of asking an appeals court to return a series of Boston drug cases to him for re-sentencing. Part of Young's rationale - that the sentences were unconstitutional because he had factored in some details never put before a jury - closely forecast what the Supreme Court would say the following week.

Allowing judges to weigh so-called relevant conduct at sentencings, Young wrote, has meant "the routine sentencing of offenders on the basis of crimes with which they have never been charged, the commission of which they deny, without any evidence ever having been proffered against them."

In its 5-4 decision in Blakely, the Supreme Court said any factor that could increase a sentence must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The high court reversed the 90-month sentence of Ralph H. Blakely Jr., who was convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife in 1998. Under state sentencing guidelines in Washington, Blakely would have faced a maximum sentence of 53 months for the crime, but a state judge added 37 months after finding at a sentencing hearing that Blakely had acted with "deliberate cruelty."

Writing the Supreme Court's majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the country's founders "would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of three more years of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation to ... twelve of his equals and neighbors, rather than a lone employee of the state."

The U.S. government and at least 10 states adopted sentencing guidelines over the past two decades as part of an effort to ensure uniformity and fairness in criminal punishment. In general, the guidelines create a grid system for handing out punishment - based on factors such as a defendant's acceptance of responsibility, his level of cooperation with authorities and criminal background.

Guideline systems usually allow, or instruct, judges to impose longer sentences based on factors such as the amount of narcotics involved in a drug case or the severity of the crime. Still, many judges have long complained about the guidelines leaving them little room to impose their own judgment in sentencing.

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