High Court Bolsters Sentencing Guidelines

Article excerpt

The US Supreme Court has breathed new life into what had become a somewhat battered federal sentencing-guidelines system. In a decision that is likely to encourage judges to rely on the guidelines, the high court Thursday ruled against a North Carolina man whose lawyers argued that judges had placed too much emphasis on the guidelines in sentencing him. The court said that appeals court judges can presume that a criminal sentence falling within the guidelines range is a reasonable punishment. The case was closely watched because it was expected to help clarify for lower court judges how they should apply the sentencing guidelines following a 2005 high court ruling that had struck down a portion of those guidelines. While judges sometimes look past the guidelines to other factors in handing down criminal sentences, appeals court judges assessing the reasonableness of those sentences can give greater weight to the sentencing guidelines because they represent a two- track approach to sentencing laid out by Congress, Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion Thursday. The federal sentencing guidelines are more than merely advisory but less than mandatory, the majority said. They represent the considered judgment of the US Sentencing Commission and an effort by Congress to establish a sentencing system that strives to issue similar sentences for similar crimes. In addition, the high court said that reliance on the sentencing guidelines does not necessarily violate Sixth Amendment rights to a jury trial when a federal judge boosts a sentence based on guidelines factors not presented to the jury. The high court said this is so because the guidelines are not mandatory. Of the 70,000 defendants sentenced each year, roughly 9,800 receive sentences that are outside the suggested guidelines sentence. Justice Breyer said appeals court judges could give significant weight to the suggested guidelines sentence in determining the reasonableness of a particular sentence. But the presumption must not carry so much weight as to transform the guidelines into a mandatory, mechanical process. The presumption of reasonableness only applies for appeals court judges assessing sentences handed down by trial court judges. And it is not binding, Breyer emphasized. In a dissent, Justice David Souter said the decision will encourage trial judges to use the guidelines as if they were mandatory in order to hand down appeal-proof sentences. …