Justices weigh sentencing laws

October 12, 2006|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court wrestled yesterday with its own conflicting rulings on whether judges or juries should decide on criminal punishments, with the fate of California's nearly 30-year-old sentencing law hanging on the outcome.

After the hourlong argument, it was unclear whether the justices would uphold the state's system or give thousands of prison inmates a chance for shorter prison terms.

The outcome will depend on how the justices resolve a conflict that the court created.

Until the mid-1970s, judges decided on the punishment for a convicted criminal. California, like most other states, adopted laws that set guidelines for judges.

In 1977, the California law set prison terms for felonies that would be the norm in most cases. But judges were permitted to impose shorter or longer sentences if they decided that certain factors called for harsher or more lenient treatment.

That sentencing system is being challenged based on recent Supreme Court rulings that say juries, not judges, should decide whether those factors should lead to longer prison terms.

Two years ago, an unusual coalition of the court's liberal and conservative justices struck down the sentencing system in Washington state. That system, like California's and the federal sentencing rules, said that judges can impose longer prison terms if they find that certain "aggravating factors" call for extra punishment.

Led by Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, a 5-4 majority said defendants have a constitutional right to have a jury decide whether aggravating factors - such as defendants who do not show remorse - should lead to longer sentences.

But a year later, faced with a direct challenge to the federal sentencing system, a different 5-4 majority upheld it. In that case, the court concluded that the rules for federal judges were guidelines, not legal mandates.

Yesterday, the high court debated whether California's system sets guidelines for its judges or legal mandates.

Peter Gold, a San Francisco lawyer for a convicted child molester, said the California law sets mandatory rules.

"It mandates that judges shall impose the middle term unless there are factors in aggravation or mitigation," he said.

His client, John Cunningham, was a police officer who was convicted of sexually abusing his son. The state law set a middle term of 12 years in prison for the crime Cunningham was convicted of, with a range of six years to 16 years. Because the judge found aggravating factors, he sentenced Cunningham to 16 years in prison.

Last year, the state Supreme Court upheld the sentence and said the state's system set guidelines for judges similar to those in the federal system.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. defended that conclusion. "California's system looks a lot like the federal system," he told Gold. It permits judges to impose longer terms but does not require they do so, he said.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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