BREAKING NEWS ~ Supreme Court rules on sentencing guidelines

[JURIST] AP is reporting that the Supreme Court has ruled that federal judges have been improperly adding time to criminals' sentences, a decision that puts in doubt longtime sentencing rules.

10:32 AM ET - The ruling is in the consolidated cases of US v. Booker and US v. Fanfan [Duke Law backgrounder]. The questions presented to the Court were:

1. Whether the Sixth Amendment is violated by the imposition of an enhanced sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines based on the sentencing judge's determination of a fact (other than a prior conviction) that was not found by the jury or admitted by the defendant.

2. If the answer to the first question is "yes," the following question is presented: whether, in a case in which the Guidelines would require the court to find a sentence-enhancing fact, the Sentencing Guidelines as a whole would be inapplicable, as a matter of severability analysis, such that the sentencing court must exercise its discretion to sentence the defendant within the maximum and minimum set by statute for the offense of conviction.
From DC, the Supreme Court litigation firm of Goldstein & Howe has posted these early details on their SCOTUSblog.
The Supreme Court ruled today that the federal Sentencing Guidelines must satisfy the standards of the Sixth Amendment as applied in the Court's ruling in Blakely v. Washington. Justice Stevens wrote an opinion on that point, and Justice Breyer wrote a separate opinion saying that the Guidelines can no longer be mandatory, but can continue to operate "in a manner consistent with congressional intent."

Justice Breyer's opinion declares, in key parts: "The District Courts, while not bound to apply the Guidelines, must consult those Guidelines and take them into account when sentencing....The courts of appeals review sentencing decisions for unreasonableness. These features of the remaining system, while not the system Congress enacted, nevertheless continue to move sentencing in Congress' preferred direction, helping to avoid excessive sentencing disparities while maintaining flexibility sufficient to individualize sentences where necessary.

"...Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now lies in Congress' court. The National Legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice."
The full text of the Court's ruling should be available online shortly. Review the Court's root ruling from last year in Blakely v. Washington, invalidating on Sixth Amendment grounds a Washington state statute authorizing a judge to impose a sentence above the "standard range" specified if aggravating factors justified the increase. In a JURIST Forum column this past September University of Pittsburgh law professor Sandra Jordan reflected on the Supreme Court's possible application of Blakely to federal sentencing:
The trouble is that over 44% of sentences in federal court are based on sentencing enhancements that are not proven to a jury or admitted by the defendant. These enhancements, also known as "relevant conduct" in federal court, have the practical effect of increasing, even quadrupling, federal prison time to be served. Relevant conduct can increase a sentence many years, and it need never be proven to a jury or established beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, thousands of federal sentences are based on information that may be determined to be unconstitutional in light of the Blakely ruling. If the Court holds the federal guidelines to the same standard as it applied to the Washington sentencing scheme, as expected, then Blakely review can potentially disrupt the sentences of thousands of federal prisoners.

Besides the logistical problems that will result if the federal guidelines are struck down or held to the Blakely microscope, legal observers are watching closely to discern what guidance the Court will lend to the sentencing process. If the Court elevates the role of the jury to include fact-finding obligations, jurors could then assume much more power in the trial of criminal cases. This result brings its own set of problems, notably the consideration of information that would otherwise be excluded during the guilt phase of a trial.

The current interpretation of the federal sentencing guidelines allows the government to enhance the defendant's sentence by incorporating "relevant conduct" information that would otherwise be excluded from the trial and use this same information at the time of sentencing. This strategy, condoned by the courts until now, has contributed to our swelling prison population in the United States. Blakely's rationale is sound and founded on the principle that punishment should be based only on the facts of the case under deliberation....

Perhaps for the first time since the passage of the federal guidelines in 1987, there is an opportunity to re-evaluate their actual effectiveness as they currently operate. Granted, the guidelines standardized the sentencing process. However, one unanticipated result of the guidelines was that they shifted sentencing power from the judicial branch to the executive branch. Prosecutors now control the entire criminal prosecution, including sentencing, by negotiating the plea and any crime-specific or extraneous factors which determine the ultimate sentence. Most observers would agree that the result has been a skewed sentencing jurisprudence which certainly was not contemplated by the drafters of the guidelines system. Judges have resigned themselves to the reality that the guidelines leave no room for debate or compromise. Now Blakely opens the dialogue on sentencing once again, something that is certainly overdue. If the guidelines do not survive in their entirety, it presents an opportunity to revamp sentencing policy and to factor out all of the troubling concerns with the guidelines. With an open and inclusive dialogue, change can reflect that which is desirable in sentencing and ferret out the overly formulistic approach that troubled so many guidelines experts. This is a welcome scenario."
Read the full text of Jordan's JURIST op-ed entitled A Time for Reasoned Sentencing Policy.

10:59 AM ET - Read the full text of the Supreme Court's opinion in Booker, now online from Cornell.


 

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