Enhancements of Criminal Sentences for Factors Other Than Prior Convictions Must Be Based on Jury Findings

Article excerpt

Mental health professionals often provide testimony at criminal sentencing hearings, including assessments of the dangerousness of convicted defendants. In some states, judges are authorized to enhance the sentence given based on factual findings made by the judge at these hearings.

In a case before the Supreme Court, a man diagnosed at various times with psychological and personality disorders, including paranoid schizophrenia, pled guilty to kidnapping his estranged wife. The crime carried a maximum penalty of 53 months under Washington's statutory sentencing guidelines, based on various pre-identified factors deemed relevant to the crime (the longest sentence available for this crime under Washington law was 10 years). The trial judge increased the sentence to 90 months after finding the defendant had acted with "deliberate cruelty," a statutorily enumerated ground for departure from the sentencing guidelines in domestic-violence cases. Faced with an unexpected increase of more than three years in his sentence, the defendant objected.

The Court, on a 5-4 vote, ruled that relying on factual findings that were neither admitted by the defendant nor found by a jury violated the defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial and held that any factor that increases a criminal sentence, except for prior convictions, must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The court reasoned that a judge's authority to sentence derives solely from the jury's verdict and juries, rather than "a lone employee of the State," should make these decisions. …

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