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July 15, 2004 - The Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)

Judge Tests Limits Of New Federal Sentencing Plan

By Jamie Satterfield

The shackles came off in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Wednesday, but it wasn't a defendant who was set free.

It was the judge.

With the ink still wet on a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that said judges are no longer bound by federal sentencing guidelines, Senior Federal Judge James H. Jarvis put it into practice.

Travis Jeffries, a 22-year-old crack dealer, faced a minimum of 121 months behind bars under those guidelines. Jarvis cut the term in half, ruling Jeffries should only serve 60 months in a federal prison.

Until Wednesday, Jarvis would have been hard-pressed to exercise that kind of judicial discretion. Prosecutors and defense attorneys differ over whether his newfound freedom is a good thing.

The breakthrough comes courtesy of two court rulings.

The first was a June 24 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that sent shockwaves throughout the nation's judicial system. In that case, known as the Blakely decision, the high court ruled that a jury -- not a judge -- should decide whether someone is guilty of conduct used to pump up punishment.

That decision directly impacted the way criminals in Washington are sentenced because the defendant in the case, Ralph H. Blakely Jr., was convicted in that state.

But a furor immediately arose over whether that ruling affected the way criminals are sentenced in the federal court system and what, if any, effect it had on states with sentencing procedures similar to those in Washington.

Tennessee is among those states that use a similar sentencing scheme. So far, however, the jury is still out on what the decision will mean here.

Federal appellate courts across the nation began wading into the fray within days. One said the Blakely decision was much ado about nothing for federal courts. Another opined that it was significant. Yet a third complained the issue was just too fuzzy and beseeched the Supreme Court to directly tackle the question of whether the federal sentencing scheme was unconstitutional.

None of those appellate courts, however, had jurisdiction over the federal system in Tennessee.

Then, on Wednesday, the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, which rules on cases in Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan, weighed in on a case of its own, known as the Montgomery decision. In that case, the court said that Blakely applies directly to federal courts in the district.

In their opinion, the appellate court wrote that federal sentencing guidelines put into place in 1987 were not guidelines at all. Instead, the court said, the guidelines in practice were made mandatory. The decision was rendered by three of the nine-member panel.

Under the federal sentencing scheme, a defendant's range of possible punishments was reduced to a mathematical formula.

Nasty criminal history? Up the sentencing ladder you climbed. The more drugs that a prosecutor could convince a judge you sold, the higher your penalty range. Were you the leader of your pack? More prison time awaited you.

Youth could slide you down the scale. Snitching on your partners also slipped you down a rung or two. Confession, too, was not only good for the soul but worth a sentencing break.

In the end, a judge was left with a narrow path of punishment -- a minimum and a maximum typically separated by a few years. A federal judge could go out on a sentencing limb and ignore the guideline range, but the decision would invariably be appealed and likely reversed.

The Blakely decision, the appellate court said, changed all that.

"In light of Blakely a district judge should no longer view herself (or himself) as operating a mandatory or determinate sentencing system but rather should view the guidelines in general as recommendations to be considered," the court wrote.

Defense attorneys lauded the decision.

"Federal judges are now free to do what they could do only in rare instances (before)," said Knoxville attorney David Eldridge.

Federal Defender Paula Voss, who represented Jeffries and became the first defense attorney to use Wednesday's decision, called it a "healthy re-evaluation" of the way sentences are meted out.

Defense attorney Tom Dillard said both decisions right a sentencing structure that had gone wrong.

"The guidelines should be guidelines," he said. "They shouldn't be set in stone."

Prosecutors had a far different view. Although representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office could not be reached for immediate comment, federal prosecutors already had been advised by the U.S. Department of Justice to start taking steps to stave off any impact from the Blakely decision.

The justice department has staunchly defended the federal guidelines, arguing the scheme restored fairness to the system, ensured that punishment fit the crime and made good common sense, punishing criminal leaders and repeat offenders more harshly.

Both sides agree, however, that the nation's high court should weigh in - and soon - on whether it intended to change the face of the federal sentencing scheme with its Blakely decision.

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