- Associated Press - Saturday, August 1, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Supreme Court’s milestone decision to strike down state sentencing guidelines and make them “advisory” only for judges may influence how defendants are sentenced for years ahead.

The 5-2 ruling Wednesday also came as a reconstituted commission is meeting for the first time in 18 years to review criminal sentencing rules enacted in 1998 and to propose changes to lawmakers. Here’s a look at the case and its potential effect on sentences:

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WHAT ARE SENTENCING GUIDELINES?

Michigan has “indeterminate” sentences in which criminals convicted of felonies are given a range of years. The maximum is set by law. Judges structure jail terms and minimum prison stays according to guidelines that sort crimes by type, severity, whether a defendant has a prior record, and factor in offense variables such as whether a weapon was used and if a victim was harmed. The parole board decides if an inmate is released after serving the minimum or must wait until hitting the maximum term.



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WHAT WAS DECLARED UNCONSTITUTIONAL?

The high court, applying some key U.S. Supreme Court decisions, said the guidelines are unconstitutional if they increase mandatory minimum prison terms based on offense variables not admitted to by a defendant or found by jurors beyond a reasonable doubt. Those variables generally had been set by probation officers and judges.

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HOW SIGNIFICANT IS THE RULING?

Lawyers say the Lockridge decision, while unsurprising, is substantial and possibly the court’s biggest criminal ruling in years. “We have an entire generation of judges who have been trained to score the sentencing guidelines, not do any kind of individualized sentencing that’s appropriate for the person standing before them,” said Detroit attorney Margaret Sind Raben, former president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.

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WHO LIKES IT?

Defense lawyers such as Raben say sentencing will be fairer now as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Judges were always free to disregard a minimum sentence within the guidelines range for “substantial and compelling” reasons. The ruling, though, gives them more leeway. Justices told judges to still determine the applicable guidelines range and take it into account, but the guidelines are now advisory and sentences falling outside the range can be reviewed on appeal for their “reasonableness.” Raben said the guidelines will continue to have a role, similar to how federal sentences are handed down, but Michigan’s rules are no longer “pretty much mandatory.”

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WHO OPPOSES IT?

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, whose office argued the case and had backing from Attorney General Bill Schuette and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said the decision puts Michigan in a “time warp.” From 1984 through 1998, guidelines developed by the state Supreme Court were also advisory. “You have certain disparities within different circuit (courts), and what it’s going to do is it’s going to exacerbate it,” Cooper, a former judge, said. The guidelines, she said, are designed to ensure fairness and avoid “wild disparity” among sentences in urban and rural areas. Dissenting Justice Stephen Markman, a former federal prosecutor, said nullifying the guidelines will make it “almost impossible” for defendants or prosecutors to predict what sentences will be imposed. He warned of consequences in plea bargaining.

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CURRENT INMATES?

If a prisoner’s minimum sentence was based on factors not admitted to or determined by a jury, the case will go back to the trial judge who must decide if he or she would have imposed a “materially different sentence but for the constitutional error,” Justice Bridge McCormack wrote for the majority. If the answer is yes, the judge must order resentencing. For new cases, there likely will be future litigation over defining “reasonable” sentences.

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WILL JUDGES STICK WITH GUIDELINES?

Experts expect many judges will stay inside the guideline range, but “the aftermath of this ruling is not going to be known for many years,” said Neil Rockind, a Southfield-based criminal defense attorney. “I hope that judges will restrain themselves and sentence below what the advisory guidelines are. I just fear that there are some trigger-happy judges and they may do the opposite.”

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WHAT’S NEXT?

Cooper is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for review within 90 days, saying Friday she will not “roll over.” She is consulting with Schuette’s office, which said that nothing had been decided. The Lockridge decision could bolster Gov. Rick Snyder’s call for unspecified legislation to make sentencing more consistent and to spend less on incarceration. The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center last year recommended a series of changes, and a new 17-member Criminal Justice Policy Commission is working on legislative recommendations.

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Online:

People v. Lockridge: https://1.usa.gov/1I87Ptj

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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