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Supremes on Sentencing: 20 Years for Confusion


Did anyone else find The New York Timesarticle on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision a tad confusing? The only thing I was reasonably sure of, after the first time I read it, was that I will probably be able to stay out of jail.

But the Times‘ skilled Supremes watcher, Linda Greenhouse, wasn’t the only one to have trouble explaining the very complicated twin decisions that may have fundamentally reshaped the way federal judges sentence people: The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post articles also made it tough for readers to keep clear what each decision meant, and what the alternatives were.

The Boston Globe may have explained it best:

The high court found that the mandatory sentencing guidelines system violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it required judges to base part of their sentencing decisions on additional facts, such as previous criminal history or using a weapon, which a jury did not specifically find to be true.

    But in a dramatic shift dubbed ”judicial jujitsu” by one analyst, an almost entirely different 5-4 majority pulled back from completely scrapping the sentencing system. … [The five in majority voted to make the guidelines merely advisory, not mandatory. The four dissenters proposed an] alternate system under which the guidelines would be preserved, but every relevant fact would be submitted to a jury. That would have had the effect of almost entirely eliminating input by judges on what sentence a defendant receives.

The Post does well outlining the history of the sentencing rules:

The guidelines were established in the 1980s as part of a bipartisan effort to ensure that the same crime would receive about the same punishment nationwide. But since then, they have become the source of intense controversy in the federal courts, subject to criticism across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and prosecutors have said that some judges have tried to coddle criminals by eluding the guidelines. Defense lawyers and some judges have said they have resulted in excessive sentences for some defendants.

And The New York Times has the most practical reading of the ruling’s implications:

The decision leaves many unanswered questions and much work for the federal courts of appeals. It is in the appeals courts that its real meaning will emerge, as those courts handle sentencing appeals and build a body of law evaluating the “reasonableness” of sentences.

Once you’ve gotten a grasp of what the justices did, go here for a look (in PDF form) at the sentencing guidelines themselves. On page 44, you can read the complex instructions for how to punish a murderer, which include passages like the following:

If the defendant did not cause the death intentionally or knowingly, a downward departure may be warranted. For example, a downward departure may be warranted if in robbing a bank, the defendant merely passed a note to the teller, as a result of which the teller had a heart attack and died. The extent of the departure should be based upon the defendant’s state of mind (e.g., recklessness or negligence), the degree of risk inherent in the conduct, and the nature of the underlying offense conduct.

Of course, if you want to know what it all really means, check out the Daily News, which covers the implications for Martha Stewart.

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