Federal sentencing guidelines

October 11, 2004

WHEN CONGRESS reformed the way federal judges impose criminal sentences, its aim in the mid-1980s was to ensure similar sentences for like crimes. But the federal guidelines haven't always produced equitable sentences. And a majority of the Supreme Court recognized last week that there is a constitutional problem with the system. An Illinois case argued before the court focused on a central flaw of the system that demands redress.

After a Chicago jury convicted Freddie J. Booker of possessing 500 grams of cocaine, a judge, in accordance with the guidelines, increased his sentence by eight years based on evidence that a jury never considered. A federal appeals court ruled that the use of that evidence violated Mr. Booker's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. It seems only logical that defendants would be sentenced for crimes for which they have been convicted. If prosecutors had evidence that Mr. Booker possessed a larger quantity of drugs and obstructed justice, then they should have sought to convict him on those charges as well. But to bolster sentences on evidence of alleged crimes appears unfair and unjust -- yet that's exactly what the 17-year-old guidelines permit.

The Supreme Court's review of the guidelines stems from its decision in June that found unconstitutional Washington state's sentencing system. In Blakely vs. Washington, the court ruled that the practice of a judge using evidence not considered by a jury to determine a sentence violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The ruling set federal prosecutors and defense lawyers clamoring for a clarification of its impact on the federal system.

During a hearing last week, justices appeared to struggle less with the constitutionality of the federal guidelines than with the question of whether they could revise them on their own and what effect revisions would have on the federal justice system. Prosecutors worry that requiring juries to rule on evidence for sentencing would cause court backlogs.

Congress' intent in crafting a federal guidelines system was a good one: All things being equal, defendants convicted of the same crime should receive similar sentences. To that end, the Supreme Court should strike the aspect of the present system that allows judges to consider for sentencing evidence not heard by a jury.

That would be an easy way to protect a defendant's rights without scrapping the guidelines entirely. If the court decides Congress must fashion a remedy, then federal lawmakers should look to Kansas, where a jury reconvenes to weigh additional evidence before sentencing, for a thoughtful, balanced approach.

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