Newsbrief: Two Rulings Could Affect Federal Sentencing 6/25/04

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A pair of rulings this week, one from a US District Court judge in Massachusetts and one from the Supreme Court, appear to call into question the federal sentencing guidelines used to send tens of thousands of drug offenders to prison for lengthy sentences. DRCNet has not yet been able to obtain credible detailed analyses of the potential impact of these decisions on drug cases. We will do so and report on them in more detail next week.

In Boston on Monday, Senior US District Judge William Young issued a memorandum on sentencing in which he called federal sentencing guidelines "unconstitutional." The memo discussed five recent drug cases before his court. In those cases, Young ruled, the sentences handed down were too harsh and violated the defendants' constitutional right to due process. Young asked the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the sentences and refer the cases back for new sentencing hearings.

Established in the "tough on crime" 1980s, the guidelines were an attempt to reduce disparities in sentencing by setting up a grid where defendants would be placed based on factors such as criminal history, current offense, level of cooperation with authorities and acceptance of personal responsibility. But in combination with harsh drug laws, the sentencing guidelines have resulted in ever-lengthier prison stays for tens of thousands of small-time drug offenders.

And in a Thursday ruling, a divided US Supreme Court ruled that judges alone cannot impose prison terms longer than those called for by sentencing guidelines. In Blakely v. Washington, a judge had sentenced Ralph Howard Blakely to seven years in prison for kidnapping his estranged wife, although the sentencing guidelines called for a maximum of four years. The sentencing judge cited aggravating factors in the case.

The decision is the latest judicial fallout from the court's 2000 Apprendi decision, where it held that only juries, not judges, can decide facts of a case that may result in a longer prison term. The implications for federal drug cases, where sentences based on drug weight are set by a judge after conviction, are potentially staggering.

Writing for the majority in an atypically split court, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the right to a jury trial "is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure." On the basis of a judge's unilateral decision, wrote Scalia, Blakely "was sentenced to prison for more than three years beyond what the law allowed for the crime to which he confessed. The framers would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation" to a jury, Scalia wrote.

Look for more on both these rulings next week. Read up on Apprendi in DRCNet's previous coverage:

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Issue #343, 6/25/04 Editorial: Ruling Creates More Questions Than Answers | Like a Rock: New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws Survive Another Legislative Session | When Remaining Silent Is a Crime: US Supreme Court Rules Cops Can Arrest Those Who Refuse to Identify Themselves | Initiatives on the Move: Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Oakland, Montana Added to Upcoming Marijuana Reform Votes This November | DRCNet Interview: Jude Renaud, Executive Director, Educators for Sensible Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Is Cecil Knox the Godfather? Feds Indict Southwest Virginia Pain Specialist Cecil Knox for Third Time, Aim to Win Racketeering Conviction | Newsbrief: Florida Pain Doctor Found Guilty of Illegal Prescribing | Newsbrief: California Pharmacist to Go on Trial for Filling Oxycontin Prescriptions | Newsbrief: Two Rulings Could Affect Federal Sentencing | Newsbrief: American Bar Association Report Calls for "Smart on Crime" Approach, End to Mandatory Minimum Sentences | Newsbrief: Utah Supreme Court Upholds Religious Peyote Use by Non-Indians | Newsbrief: Marijuana Candy Bars Appear in Bay Area | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | New Jersey Needle Exchange Update | This Week in History | Students for Sensible Drug Policy Chapter Grants | The Reformer's Calendar
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