- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Federal judges should be required to adhere to sentencing guidelines that set mandatory minimums for prison sentences, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday, citing a “a drift toward lesser sentences” since a landmark Supreme Court ruling challenged the guidelines.

Mr. Gonzales, in urging Congress to approve legislation mandating new rules governing federal sentencing, said too many convicted criminals were getting sentences lighter than outlined in the nearly 20-year-old guidelines because of the high court ruling.

“The guidelines reflected a careful balancing by Congress and the Sentencing Commission between discretion and consistency,” Mr. Gonzales said. “But the mandatory guidelines system is no longer in place today, and I believe its loss threatens the progress we have made in ensuring tough and fair sentences for federal offenders.”

The Supreme Court voided mandatory guidelines in January, making them voluntary in a ruling that said they violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to a jury trial. The court’s ruling affirmed that juries, not judges, must determine any facts used to set the length of prison sentences.

In a complex set of three opinions, the high court criticized the federal guidelines and made them advisory, potentially opening the way for an avalanche of appeals of federal sentences.

Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984, which issued the guidelines that have bound federal judges since 1987. The guidelines set rules for federal judges in deciding punishment and sought to reduce disparities among sentences for the same crime. They also mandate factors that can lead to stiffer or lighter sentences.

Mr. Gonzales noted a disparity in sentencing without mandatory guidelines by citing the cases of two defendants, one in New York and the other in New Jersey, both of whom were convicted on similar charges involving possession of child pornography. He said the New York judge ordered probation, but the New Jersey conviction resulted in a 41-month sentence.

He said the Supreme Court ruling mandates that judges must take the guidelines into account, but are no longer bound by the law to impose a sentence within the range prescribed.

“We risk losing a sentencing system that requires serious sentences for serious offenders and helps prevent disparate sentences for equally serious crimes,” he said.

Mr. Gonzales said federal sentencing guidelines have “achieved the ambitious goals of public safety and fairness set out by Congress.” He said if the low crime rates of today had been as high as those 30 or 40 years ago, “then 34 million additional violent crimes would have been committed in the last decade.”

He called on Congress to set mandatory minimums, saying the country’s “sentencing system works best when judges have some discretion, but discretion that is bounded by mandatory sentencing guidelines created through the legislative process.”

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