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Judges in Shackles

July 29, 2004

Supreme Court decisions are supposed to settle confusion. But the justices left a bigger mess than they found when they decided last month that some prison sentences violated a defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial.

The ruling puts in doubt the legality of the sentences in thousands of state and federal cases. Certainly, the high court justices need to fix the muddle they created. But it was Congress that created this problem with the unduly restrictive sentencing scheme it enacted two decades ago. Tempering those laws is where the real fix begins.

The Supreme Court struck down Washington state's sentencing laws as unconstitutional because they allowed judges to boost punishments by considering a variety of factors, such as whether the convict exhibited deliberate cruelty. Judges could up prison terms based on a "preponderance of the evidence," a lower standard of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt," which juries must use. Only juries should be able to decide on factors that increase sentences, the court ruled.

The Blakely vs. Washington decision throws a grenade into Washington's sentencing laws, and those in states with similar rules. California is largely unaffected because juries here already decide whether to increase punishments.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 30, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 10 Editorial Pages Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Sentencing ruling -- An editorial Thursday said California is largely unaffected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating sentencing guidelines for judges in Washington state because decisions on increasing punishment are made by juries here. However, California judges can extend some sentences if they find "aggravating factors." Two cases before the state Supreme Court seek clarification on the issue.

The ruling also has a big effect in federal courts, thanks to the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which created similar guidelines for federal judges. Blakely leaves these judges befuddled and has already led to a slew of conflicting decisions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has rightfully called for the Supreme Court to speed a review of two pending federal cases in order to clarify whether the federal guidelines are also defective. Real reform, however, rests with Congress.

The Sentencing Reform Act and later legislation squeezed out nearly all the authority that judges once had to fit the punishment to the crime. This scheme has created unfairness of a different sort, particularly with politically charged crimes like drug offenses. As a result, drug traffickers spend six years behind bars, on average, compared with three for those convicted of manslaughter. One result, as the Justice Department reported this week, is that a record 6.9 million Americans were behind bars, on probation or on parole last year, at a cost of billions.

Federal guidelines are a good idea, helping to prevent things like sentencing disparities based on a defendant's race. But the current guidelines lead to overly severe sentences for certain crimes and take away too much discretion from judges. The chaos following the Supreme Court ruling actually creates an opportunity to fix the problems.

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