International House of Dan: Federal Sentencing Guidelines ruling

Friday, January 14, 2005

Federal Sentencing Guidelines ruling

I'm going to try something new, I think I just figured out how to turn words into links...

Last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker. Justices Stevens and Breyer delivered the opinion, holding that Sixth Amendment jury trial requirements apply to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and as a result, mandatory sentence extensions based upon facts not presented to the jury are unconstitutional. I had hoped to do some in-depth analysis of the issue of mandatory sentencing and of the Booker decision, but the opinion is 124 pages long (7 pages of syllabus, 50 or so of opinion, and the rest is dissent).

The case consisted of two consolidated appeals in which the judge learned of additional facts at sentencing, without a jury determination about those facts beyond a reasonable doubt. So a jury had ruled on guilt based on facts that could lead to a certain sentence. Afterwards, the judge relied on facts which, if true, mandated a substantially higher sentence than that possible under the jury's facts (in Booker's case, the jury thought he possessed 92 grams of crack, and convicted for possession of at least 50 grams, but his sentence resulted from a finding that he possessed about 500 grams more). The Court ruled that where the sentencing laws made the upward departure mandatory, the laws amounted to a deprivation of the right to a jury trial with regard to the facts on which the harsher sentence is based. It's important to note that the Court deemed the guidelines to be advisory, and not mandatory, and that the ruling does not affect mandatory minimum provisions in the Sentencing Reform Act.

Brooks reminds me of the Court's 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona (this one's only about 50 pages), in which the Sixth Amendment was held to prevent a sentencing judge following a jury conviction from finding aggravating factors resulting in the death penalty.

Mandatory sentencing laws have serious flaws which can result in gross miscarriages of justice. For instance, there is ample statistical data regarding the disproportional impact that Federal sentencing laws have on African Americans. The bulk of cases to which these federal guidelines are applicable are drug cases. In what is called the "100:1 rule", crack (inner cities) is punished more harshly than powder cocaine (Wall Street) to the tune of the same sentence being imposed for 500 grams of powder cocaine as for 5 grams of crack. Just like prior legislatures, the 108th Congress had (four) bills trying to address this discrepancy, HR 345, HR 1435, HR 2444, and S 5103: all still sit in committee.

These laws, though, are not just wrong because of the race of drug defendants. The American Bar Association issued a report last year in which it raises serious concerns and calls for the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws. Among the chief concerns of the lawyers' group is these laws force judges to sentence defendants before them based, not upon their own judgment, but upon charts developed by bureaucrats. It is frightening to allow the legislature to reach so far into the realm of the judiciary, and I find it interesting that those who oppose the centralization of health care or education often favor it when it comes to this issue.

...Not that any of that matters, of course, the Court did not strike down mandatory minimums. Here are links to the ABA's and Families Against Mandatory Minimums' reaction to the Brooks/Fanfan decision.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes....those damn html codes , if only there was some sort of...i don't center, or cheat sheet.

Because then one could much more easily emphasize specific items, or even make email more convenient sincerely,
carlos en carga

14 January, 2005 14:52  
Blogger Dan said...

That's too complicated... I had just figured out what the little "link" button does on the screen where I write the messages. :o) That link will come in very handy, though, thanks!


14 January, 2005 17:55  

Post a Comment

<< Home