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June 23, 2005 - Athens Banner-Herald (GA)

Editorial: One-Size-For-All Sentencing A Bad Fit For Justice

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Six months after the U.S. Supreme Court freed judges from the confines of mandatory sentencing rules, the nation's top lawyer is lobbying for their reinstatement.

In a speech to a conference of the National Center for Victims of Crime Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called for requiring federal judges once again to adhere to mandatory minimum prison sentences. Gonzales argued that uniform sentencing policies are the only way to ensure judicial consistency across the nation's courtrooms.

The January Supreme Court ruling meant federal judges no longer are required to follow sentencing guidelines but can now treat them merely as recommendations. The change allows judges to use their discretion in weighing the facts of each case in deciding whether an individual's sentence should be more or less severe than suggested by the guidelines.

While some hailed the high court's ruling for giving judges back their judgment, Gonzales contends the change has created imbalance in the judicial system and points to cases where similar crimes received vastly different sentences. To remedy this situation, Gonzales is urging Congress to give serious consideration to reinstate minimum punishments for federal crimes.

The shrill tone of urgency in Gonzales' comments might lead some to believe a sentencing crisis had broken out in the nation's courtrooms with judges giving dangerous criminals wrist slaps instead of prison time.

This is hardly the case.

In fact, the vast majority of judges appear to be treating their new sentencing freedom with due caution. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 88.6 percent of the federal sentences handed down since the Supreme Court ruling were within the range set by the sentencing guidelines, according to an Associated Press report.

Of the 14,572 sentences imposed during this time, 1,458 were below the recommended range and 201 were more severe. This is far from evidence of a judicial revolution.

Not everyone shares Gonzales' desire to return to past sentencing practices. Among those urging caution are former Attorney General Edwin Meese, a Republican, and former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, a Democrat.

We have no doubt that supporters of mandatory minimum sentences have a collection of anecdotes where judges have opted for lenient punishments with little rhyme or reason. These may be unfortunate, but they do not mean the system is fatally flawed.

Keep in mind, there were many cases under the previous rules where those convicted of lesser crimes were ensnared by rigid sentencing policies and received unduly harsh sentences as a result.

One of the worst instances of this miscarriage of justice is now before a federal appeals court. Last fall, a Utah man was sentenced to 55 years in prison without parole for a first offense of selling marijuana and possessing a concealed firearm. At the November sentencing hearing, the judge called the punishment "unjust, cruel and even irrational" but said he had no other choice under the mandatory sentencing rules.

The trial judge was not alone in his outrage over the required sentence. More than two dozen former federal judges and U.S. Attorneys filed a "friend of the court" brief in this cause arguing that the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime and violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and and unusual punishments.

This is just one case, but it clearly highlights the inherent flaw in imposing one-size-fits-all rules on our courts. No two crimes or criminals are alike, and it is a disgrace to this nation's abiding faith in justice to treat them the same. We must continue to give our judges the freedom to exercise their judgment in assessing every case and handing down proportionate sentences.

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