A splintered Supreme Court threw the nation's federal sentencing system into turmoil Wednesday, ruling that the way judges have been sentencing some 60,000 defendants a year is unconstitutional.
In ordering changes, the court found 5-4 that judges have been improperly adding time to some criminals' prison stays. The high court stopped short of scrapping the nearly two-decade-old guideline system, intended to make sure sentences do not vary widely from courtroom to courtroom.
Instead, the court said in the second half of a two-part ruling that judges should consult the guidelines in determining reasonable sentences -- but only on an advisory basis.
U.S. Attorney Larry Ferrell of the Eastern District of Missouri in Cape Girardeau, said the matter became an issue because of an earlier suit which held that the state of Washington's sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and subsequently called into the question the constitutionality of the federal sentencing guidelines. Both Washington's and the federal guidelines permitted sentences to be enhanced based on facts found by a judge at the time of sentencing, Ferrell said.
The Supreme Court, he said, concluded that the Sixth Amendment, the right to a jury trial, applied to U. S. sentencing guidelines, and in order to bring the guidelines into compliance with the Sixth Amendment, portions of the guidelines that made them mandatory had to be invalidated.
"What that means," he said, "is prior to these decisions the courts were required by the U.S. sentencing guidelines to mandatorily impose sentences within a specific range and could not deviate except under limited circumstances. What this decision says is that the guidelines are no longer mandatory. They are still in place and are still to be followed and the guideline range established by using these provisions should be considered in determining what the appropriate punishment should be. It gives the judge a lot more leeway."
How well that will work was immediately questioned.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who voted for the first part of the ruling but against the second, said the change would "wreak havoc on federal district and appellate courts quite needlessly, and for the indefinite future."
Ferrell said that because there was so much confusion about how to use the sentencing guidelines, he expects that some cases will be reverted to the Court of Appeals for new decisions. Eventually, he said, those issues will be settled and the clearer guidelines will prevail.
"This creates more questions than it answers," said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University sentencing expert.
Courts can immediately expect a deluge of cases from inmates who claim they were wrongly sentenced.
Congress may also craft its own solution, and the justices seemed to expect that.
"Ours, of course, is not the last word. The ball now lies in Congress' court," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in one part of the ruling. "The national legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would begin working to "establish a sentencing method that will be appropriately tough on career criminals, fair, and consistent with constitutional requirements."
Justice Department officials said they were disappointed in the ruling, crediting the guidelines with producing tough, uniform sentences that have helped drive crime rates to 30-year lows. They said federal prosecutors will continue to urge judges to adhere closely to the guidelines even though they will be merely advisory.
Christopher Wray, assistant attorney general for the department's criminal division, said the guidelines have ensured that "similar defendants who commit similar crimes receive similar sentences. Because the guidelines are now advisory, the risk increases that sentences across the country will become wildly inconsistent."
Under the challenged federal court system, juries consider guilt or innocence but 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.
Staff writer Linda Redeffer contributed to this report.