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Back to list of Dissenting Opinions of Judges

June 22, 2004 - The Associated Press

Judge Censures Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In a scathing criticism of the current system for handing out punishment for defendants convicted of federal crimes, a judge yesterday declared the federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional.

In a series of drug cases, US District Judge William Young said the sentencing guidelines put too much power in the hands of prosecutors and give judges too little discretion in sentencing.

Young's criticisms mirror concerns many judges and defense attorneys have expressed for years about the sentencing guidelines, which first became effective in 1987.

The guidelines, aimed at preventing disparities in sentencing, set up a grid system for sentencing defendants according to factors such as the criminal background of the defendant, the seriousness of the crime, the defendant's acceptance of responsibility, and his level of cooperation with authorities.

But many judges have expressed frustration that they have little ability to use their own judgment in sentencing, and are instead bound by the categories established by the guidelines.

In his ruling, Young says he believes the sentences handed down to the five defendants were too high and violated their constitutional right to due process.

Young asks the First US Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the sentences and remand the cases for new sentencing hearings.

David Yas, editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said many judges have lamented the stringent nature of the guidelines, and some judges have refused to take criminal cases because they object so strenuously to the guidelines.

"What judges have perhaps most strongly detested has been exactly what Judge Young says here, and that is that the Department of Justice acts, in a manner of speaking, as both prosecutor and executioner," Yas said. "They get to prosecute the crimes, and they essentially get to decide how long the guilty defendants go to prison."

US Attorney Michael Sullivan had no comment, spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling said.

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