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June 23, 2005 - The Forum (ND)

Mandatory Sentence Struggle Far From Over

By Jeff Zent

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U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb breathed a sigh of relief when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing ranges in January.

The congressional mandates reduced judges to "whipping boys" who had little discretion in sentencing criminals, Webb said Wednesday.

"It just galls me that someone would suggest they know more about handling a case before me," he said.

But recent statements by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales show that the struggle between Congress and the judicial branch is far from over, Webb said.

Too many criminals are getting light sentences since the Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing guidelines in January, Gonzales said Tuesday.

Gonzales said that since the court ruling, he has seen "a drift toward lesser sentences."

He highlighted the sentencing of a drug dealer in South Carolina. A federal judge sentenced the defendant to 10 years in prison, compared to the 27-year sentence mandatory guidelines would have required, Gonzales said.

Webb called Gonzales' use of a few examples "a cheap shot."

He and Dan Hovland, North Dakota's chief U.S. District Judge, said cases where judges have sentenced outside the guideline ranges don't reflect the national trend.

Nationally, federal judges have remained consistent in sentencing defendants. Their sentences largely fall within the guidelines that are no longer law, Hovland said.

"I don't believe there's been any appreciative change in the way sentencing has been imposed," he said.

Of 14,572 sentences handed down between the Jan. 12 Supreme Court ruling and May 5, there were 1,659 that fell outside guideline ranges, a report issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows. Of those cases, 201 sentences were harsher than called for in guideline ranges. The rest were lighter sentences.

Federal judges in North Dakota and Minnesota continue to give sentencing guidelines substantial weight as an advisory tool, some of the region's federal prosecutors and judges said.

Gonzales called for Congress to adopt mandatory minimum sentences for more crimes to address concerns about leniency.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines were established to ensure fairness and uniformity in sentencing across the nation, said Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

Expanding the number of crimes with a mandatory minimum sentence would help create a national standard for fair sentencing, said Tom Heffelfinger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota.

"I agree with the attorney general that we are, nationally, beginning to see a slippage in the U.S. district courts now that the guidelines are merely advisory," he said.

When the Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing guidelines, some congressmen immediately began talking about countering with mandatory minimum sentences, Webb said.

"It was the implied threat right away," he said.

Webb said he has deviated from sentencing guidelines only a few times in his 17 years as a federal judge.

Still, he said, judges should have discretion to tailor sentences based on the specifics of each criminal case.

"There's no way we can categorize everyone that uniformly," he said. "One suit doesn't fit everybody."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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