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February 10, 2005 - ACLU News Release (US)

ACLU Welcomes Congressional Review of Sentencing Guidelines

Calls for Change in Policies to Reflect Fairness and Justice


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Blakely News Archive

WASHINGTON - A key House committee will today review the implications of a landmark decision by the Supreme Court last month that struck down the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged Congress to use that review as an opportunity to enact meaningful changes that would restore proper judicial discretion and fairness to the sentencing system.

"Congress can now either implement meaningful sentencing guidelines, or resurrect the old unjust and costly ones," said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums erode the notion of an independent judiciary, and are a one size fits all approach to criminal justice."

In U.S. v. Booker, the Supreme Court ruled that a key component of the federal sentencing guidelines was unconstitutional. The Court struck down the aspect of federal sentencing guidelines that increased a defendant's sentence based on a judge's fact finding, rather than the verdict of a jury. At that time, the ACLU called such a policy a violation of constitutional rights.

However, the opinion also offered a disappointing remedy: Instead finding the guidelines as a whole were unconstitutional, the Court held that the guidelines were voluntary.

Under the pre-Booker guidelines, a judge issuing a sentence for a convicted defendant could rely on evidence rejected by the jury. The ACLU is concerned that Congress will now seek to change the guidelines to allow judges to issue sentences inconsistent with the crime or the findings of the jury by artificially increasing the range of the possible sentence.

In other words, a man found guilty of trespassing but acquitted of vandalism could face a harsher sentence despite the fact that a jury found him innocent of the additional charge.

Opposition to laws that tighten federal sentencing guidelines has come not only from the ACLU, but also from the Supreme Court. Justice William Rehnquist has publicly criticized such moves, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy has stated, "The federal sentencing guidelines should be revised downward."

The ACLU has asked that Congress enact changes that reduce disparities in sentencing and allow for sentences appropriate to the individual.

"The old guidelines restricted the independence of the judiciary to sentence individuals based on their own unique circumstances, rather than sweeping generalizations," added McCurdy. "Congress must avoid the procedural pitfalls of the old guidelines and also reject any draconian attempt to create a new scheme of mandatory sentences."

A coalition letter calling for meaningful sentence reform can be found at:

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

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