U.S.Supreme Court Strengthens Sentencing Powers of Federal Judges

The United States Supreme Court returned two decisions this week which should result in more discretion for sentencing judges. Before these decisions, Federal District Judges were required to justify departure from The Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which were passed by Congress to limit the sentencing power of Federal Judges. One of the cases, Gall v. United States, involved a college student sentenced to 3 years probation for involvement in an ecstasy drug distribution ring. The Guidelines called for 30 to 36 months in prison. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed this sentence, ruling that such an “extraordinary” variance required an equally extraordinary justification. Not so, said United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; rather, he chided the court of appeals for failing to give deference to the District Court’s “reasoned and reasonable decision.” In other words, the Supremes told the lower appellate courts to lay off the trial judges and let them make their own sentencing decisions, and not to overrule them just because those decisions were outside the guidelines.

The other decision, Kimbrough v. United States, returned at the same time, overturned a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal of the sentencing District Judge’s departure from the Guidelines based on his disagreement with the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Justice Ruth Ginsberg reasoned that since Congress had not blocked recently amended guidelines lowering the penalty for crack cocaine, then judges should also have discretion to depart from the Guidelines themselves, and that it was not unreasonable for them to do so.

To add more to the mix, on Tuesday the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to make retroactive their previous decision to lower the guideline sentences on crack cocaine offenders. This means that more than 19, 500 Federal prisoners will be free to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences.

I think these decisions will result in an increase in the ability of sentencing U.S. District Judges to sentence according to their own take on the entire set of facts before them; that is, the Guidelines will be but a single factor, and the judge can take many more factors into consideration in sentencing rather than blindly following the Guidelines.