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Most Judges Following Rules on Standardized Prison Terms

June 28, 1989|LORI SILVER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Despite initial opposition, a majority of federal judges have complied with strict federal sentencing rules designed to set standard prison terms for criminals convicted of similar crimes, according to a study released Tuesday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The study revealed that of the criminals convicted between November, 1987, and March, 1989, 82.3% were sentenced within the guidelines set by the commission. Many judges had opposed the rules until the Supreme Court upheld them last January. Because of that, commission Chairman William W. Wilkins Jr. said, the high compliance rate "exceeded our expectation."

The study found that 2.9% of the sentences were harsher than called for in the rules and that 9.1% were more lenient than the rules allowed. Wilkins said that judges can depart from the rules if the case involves factors not taken into account by the rules, such as age of the defendant or illness. "I'm sure there must be some (abuses), but these figures are so favorable I don't think there are very many," he said, adding that appeals to appellate courts will remedy most of the abuses.

Wilkins, an appellate judge from South Carolina, attributed 5.7% of the more lenient sentences to rewards to the defendant for "substantial assistance" to the government.

Some federal judges oppose the rules because "they interfere with their role as a judge and take away their discretion," said Tony Califa, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "They are very simplified and have caused many problems."

Critics predicted that implementation of the rules would swamp the judicial system with trials, with defendants choosing to take their chances with a jury rather than pleading guilty and facing harsher penalties.

But the study found no substantial increase in the number of trials in relation to pleas.

The commission, created by Congress in 1984 to end disparities in sentencing, drew up rules to base sentences on crimes committed, virtually taking the sentencing decision out of the hands of individual judges.

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