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Federal judges urge simplification of sentencing guidelines

[JURIST] A group of federal judges on Thursday urged the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] to revise complicated and mechanical calculations used to determine federal criminal sentences. Federal circuit and district court judges praised [Bloomberg report] the 2005 Supreme Court [official website] decision in US v. Booker [opinion], which made the USSC's guidelines advisory rather than mandatory, but said that the rules remain esoteric and time-consuming in practice. Second Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] Judge Jon O. Newman [official profile] testified that the "time has come to step back from minute tinkering," adding [testimony, PDF] that

the Commission should reexamine and discard its basic premise that for every discrete increment of criminal conduct there must be a discrete increment of punishment. Then, after considering the far less complicated guideline systems in the states that have adopted sentencing guidelines, it should start all over and fashion a simplified guideline system.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh [official profile] of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] argued that the Booker decision has increased disparity in federal sentences by allowing judges a degree of discretion that may not be based on legal grounds. He said that the federal guidelines should not be made entirely advisory, in order to guarantee some consistency in sentencing. The judges met [agenda] with the USSC at the Court of International Trade [official website] in New York as part of the commission's effort to gather information regarding its Federal Sentencing Guidelines [USSC materials].

Last month, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] called for a review of disparities between sentencing guidelines for powder and crack cocaine, echoing concerns raised [JURIST report] by Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Lanny Breuer [official profile] in April. In April 2008, a study by the USSC reported [study, PDF; JURIST report] that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses have had their sentences reduced under an amendment to sentencing guidelines. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties [press release]. In February 2008, then-US Attorney General Michael Mukasey unsuccessfully urged the Senate to block the amendment's retroactive effect [JURIST reports].

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