The Plus Side of Guidelines for Sentencing

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Monday, August 15, 2005

The Aug. 8 editorial "No Rush on Sentencing" criticized a speech by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on the effect of the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Booker , which declared unconstitutional the mandatory imposition of the federal sentencing guidelines enacted in 1987.

In his speech the attorney general made clear that the administration had not determined what the appropriate response to the decision should be, but he also pointed out the many positive aspects of the mandatory-guidelines system.

Before the Supreme Court rendered them advisory, the guidelines had made sentencing fairer and more transparent. They gave both the government and the defendant an opportunity to have the judge apply the guidelines to the facts of each case as warranted by individual circumstances, and they encouraged judges to impose similar sentences on similarly situated defendants. In addition, judges were required to explain their sentencing decisions. Independent studies have shown that determinate sentencing systems, such as the federal guidelines, have helped to reduce crime rates, which are at 30-year lows.

The minimum-guidelines system discussed in the attorney general's speech in June attempts to re-create positive aspects of the sentencing guidelines consistent with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence. The court has held that although judges cannot be required to increase a defendant's sentence based upon facts not found by a jury, it is within the power of Congress to set minimum sentences for violations of federal law.

Under the minimum-guidelines system, the maximum sentence would be the statutory maximum -- just as it is today, under the remedy created by the Supreme Court -- and the upper limit of the guideline range would remain as an advisory maximum -- again, just as today. Thus, the minimum-guidelines system does not impose any greater risk of a higher sentence than today's advisory system.

JOHN C. RICHTER

Acting Assistant Attorney General

Criminal Division

Justice Department

Washington


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