Supreme Court wades into dispute over unsettled prison sentence

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court appeared poised Monday to alter the system used for sentencing 64,000 federal criminal defendants a year, but justices clashed over whether changes would create greater inequity.

Judges, not juries, consider factors that can add years to defendants' prison sentences, under the government's 17-year-old system which has been challenged as unconstitutional.

Justice Antonin Scalia said that lucky accused criminals go before merciful judges. The unlucky, he said, can face a "hanging judge."

"The whole reason for jury trials is we don't trust judges," he said.

Scalia wrote a stunning 5-4 ruling in June that struck down a state sentencing system because it gave judges too much leeway in sentencing. The ruling caused judges around the country to delay sentencings or hand down lighter penalties.

Justices heard two follow-up appeals Monday, on the opening day of their new term, that will decide the fate of the federal system set up by Congress to make sentencing more fair.

While juries consider guilt or innocence, judges make factual decisions that affect prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime, the number of victims in a fraud or whether a defendant committed perjury during trial.

Monday's appeals involve people sentenced on drug charges in Wisconsin and Maine. Both will get lighter sentences if the court rules against the government.

A ruling is likely before the end of the year.

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