Gonzales backs new sentencing guide

Proposal requires judges to justify lighter terms

June 22, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, asserting that federal judges are handing out lighter prison sentences since a Supreme Court decision gave them more sentencing discretion, backed a new system of "guideline minimum" sentences this week for criminal cases.

The proposal by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would seek to give judges continued flexibility in setting jail terms while requiring them to justify any sentence lighter than the guidelines. Gonzales offered few details but said "serious consideration" should be given for such an approach.

The proposal appears to fall short of calls for mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, a move supported by some members of Congress that would strip judges of any ability to moderate sentences.

Gonzales was responding to what the Bush administration said was evidence of a drift toward lighter sentences by federal judges in recent months, and an increasing disparity in the sentences that defendants across the country receive for committing similar crimes.

The trend, officials said, was the result of a decision by the high court in January, holding that federal sentencing guidelines, which conservatives have tied to declining violent crime rates, are not mandatory.

The sentencing guidelines, adopted in 1987, were an attempt by Congress to ensure that defendants receive similar sentences for similar crimes throughout the federal court system. Judges were instructed that certain factors, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime, could alter prison terms.

But the Supreme Court held in January that making the system mandatory threatened a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it empowered judges to impose stiffer sentences based on factors that juries never considered. The court allowed the guidelines to stay in place by ruling that they were merely advisory.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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