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July 14, 2004 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Legal Quagmire: High Court Ruling Unleashes Chaos Over Sentencing

Judges, Prosecutors Put Aside Federal Guidelines, Fearing They're Unconstitutional - 'Boiling Frustration' On Bench

By Laurie P. Cohen and Gary Fields, Staff Reporters, WSJ

When the Supreme Court last month struck down tough sentencing guidelines used in Washington state, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented. She feared the ruling would wreak havoc on the nation's federal courts.

She was right. Although the 5-4 ruling technically affects only one state's court system, the Justice Department is forcing prosecutors of federal crimes to draft indictments and sculpt plea bargains in compliance with it. That has thrown into confusion the sentencing of nearly 250 federal defendants every day. And tens of thousands of old cases are up in the air again as defense attorneys try to get long sentences thrown out.

Now Congress may step in with a bill that might fix the problem temporarily while legislators, prosecutors and the courts search for a permanent solution. "The criminal justice system has begun to run amok," Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday.

(Remainder snipped at the request of The Wall Street Journal)

Crime And Punishment

Milestones in federal sentencing rules:

  • 1984: Congress creates U.S. Sentencing Commission to standardize sentences.
  • 1987: First sentencing guidelines created by commission.
  • 1995: Commission members try to change cocaine sentences, but Congress says no.
  • 2003: With Feeney Amendment, Congress cracks down on judges who give lighter sentences.
  • June 2004: Supreme Court rules in state case, Blakely v. Washington, that judges can't use information in sentencing not heard by jury or admitted to by defendant.
  • July: Judges begin ruling that Blakely applies to federal courts, undermining federal sentencing guidelines.

Source - WSJ research

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