Court to hear St. Louis case on sentencing guidelines

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sentence handed in drug case by federal judge was at odds with sentencing guidelines.

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Missouri case in which a federal judge imposed a sentence at odds with the prison term recommended by federal guidelines.

According to the federal sentencing guidelines, 21-year-old Mario Claiborne of St. Louis faced a range of 37 to 46 months in prison after pleading guilty last year to two cocaine-related offenses.

But U.S. District Judge Carol E. Jackson imposed a sentence of just 15 months, calling even the shortest term prescribed by the federal guidelines "excessive" for a person without a prior criminal record.

The Supreme Court will use the case to address how a judge can adequately justify a sentence that's well outside the prison term recommended by federal guidelines, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.

The court also agreed last week to hear a similar case from North Carolina, which considers the weight to be given advisory guidelines and whether a sentence is reasonable if it falls within the suggested range.

Lower courts have divided over those issues since the Supreme Court decided last year to make the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.

In the opinion last year, the Supreme Court said it hoped the changes would help "avoid excessive sentencing disparities" while maintaining a level of flexibility.

Now, the court will re-examine that decision for the first time.

Claiborne was arrested twice in 2003, once for selling 0.23 grams of cocaine base to an undercover police officer in St. Louis, later after he dropped a bag of 5.03 grams of cocaine base as he tried to run from police.

In concluding the minimum recommended sentence of 37 months was "excessive," Jackson cited Claiborne's lack of a prior criminal record, the "small quantity" of cocaine he had possessed and the court's finding that he'd be unlikely to commit similar crimes in the future.

She told the defendant that a 37-month sentence would be tantamount to "throwing you away."

The Justice Department appealed, rejecting the judge's presumption that Claiborne was unlikely to repeat a similar offense again.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled this year that the proposed 15-month prison term was too lenient.

The Supreme Court will likely hear the case in spring 2007.

Information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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