Court toughens federal prison appeals

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The Supreme Court made it harder yesterday for most defendants to challenge their federal prison sentences.

Appeals courts that review prison terms imposed by trial judges may deem them reasonable if they fall within federal sentencing guidelines adopted in the mid-1980s, the high court said.

The justices upheld a 33-month sentence given to Victor Rita for perjury and making false statements. Rita is a 25-year military veteran and former civilian federal employee.

The prison term falls within the guidelines range and was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, posing the question of whether sentences within the guidelines ordinarily will be considered reasonable.

The vast majority of federal prison sentences fall within the guidelines.

“The first question is whether a court of appeals may apply a presumption of reasonableness to a district court sentence that reflects a proper application of the sentencing guidelines. We conclude that it can,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in his majority opinion.

The court ruled 6-3 in the portion of its opinion dealing with reasonableness. Justices Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Based on yesterday’s ruling, defendants who receive sentences within the guidelines “are going to have an awfully hard time getting that sentence disrupted on appeal,” said Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at the Ohio State University’s law school.

The court took the case to resolve uncertainty over prison terms created by its decision giving federal judges more freedom to decide what is deemed a fair sentence.

In 2005, the justices scrapped a nearly 20-year-old mandatory sentencing system that was put in place to keep sentences from varying widely courtroom to courtroom. The court said judges could not make factual decisions to increase prison time because it violated defendants’ constitutional right to a jury trial.

But rather than get rid of the rules altogether, the court said judges should consult the sentencing guidelines in determining reasonable prison terms. The sentences may be subject to reversal if appeals courts find them “unreasonable.”

The justices had accepted a second appeal from a St. Louis resident, whose sentence for dealing crack cocaine another appeals court judged to be too short. But the man, Mario Claiborne, was fatally shot last month, and the court dismissed his case.

Instead, the court said last week it would review two cases in the fall in which judges imposed shorter sentences than the guidelines recommended. In one of those cases, the court could confront the federal law that treats possession of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine.

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