Some Judges Giving Fairer Sentences, Despite Guidelines

If you saw a study that showed judges on the same federal court were handing down very different sentences for the same sort of crime, it might look like a case of growing injustice. But as Derrick Z. Jackson recently wrote in the Boston Globe, it actually shows that a growing number of judges are realizing that sentencing guidelines for many drug charges are unjustifiably harsh. These judges are rejecting sentences that are excessive.

The study Jackson refers was done by the Stanford Law Review. Atlanta criminal defense attorneys note that even though the study looked at judges outside of Georgia, the study is relevant because it looked at federal judges and federal sentencing guidelines.

The study gives some hope that at least some judges are responding in a common-sense way to legal disparities that are enshrined in federal law, specifically the harsher penalties for crimes related to crack cocaine than penalties related to powder cocaine.

The study looked at the sentencing practices of ten federal judges in Massachusetts in the period before and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory sentencing guidelines unconstitutional in 2005. The study discovered a wide gap between average sentences handed out by federal judges.

During an era of crack hysteria in the ’80s, mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses skyrocketed. Under these guidelines, the study looked at the years 2002 to 2004, and saw a gap of fifteen months between the longest and shortest sentences for crack convictions.

Now, the gap is forty months between the longest and shortest crack sentences. The study points out that this disparity is a problem – the same crime can have vastly different sentences. But Jackson looks at it differently: the study shows that a third of the judges still sentence crack offenses as before, but the others are sentencing crack offenses less harshly. Because the old guidelines were unjust, the change is welcome.

This year, Congress finally moved to modify the old guidelines that gave the same sentence to someone possessing only five grams of crack as to someone possessing five hundred grams of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act was amended to reduce the sentencing disparity somewhat — to 18-1.

The study showed that some judges are moving in the right direction. Mandatory sentencing guidelines were supposed to bring uniformity, but instead they forced many injustices on defendants. Flexibility in sentencing should lead to more just results.

Source: Boston Globe “A trend toward fairer sentences” 12/21/2010