Skip to main content

Reply to "More Blacks Going to Prison in 17 Key Election States"

Friday :: May 30, 2003

New Federal Sentencing Law Takes Effect
The Feeney Amendment went into effect today, along with the Amber Alert Bill (and the revised RAVE Act.) Federal Judges, from those at the District Court level up through Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist are not happy:

Beginning today, federal judges will have less discretion than ever to craft sentences for criminals, because of a little-debated new law that increases the minimum amount of prison time for several crimes and will dramatically change federal sentencing.

....''It turns me into a bureaucrat, and I do not believe for a moment that the public wants that,'' said Nancy Gertner, a US district judge in Massachusetts who has written and lectured on the existing federal guidelines, which already tightly control the range of sentences judges can hand down.

A parade of critics -- US Supreme Court justices, the American Bar Association, the Judicial Conference of the United States, and several current and former federal prosecutors -- has attacked the bill for taking discretion from trial judges.

Under the new law, Congress has "taken the unprecedented step" of dictating to federal judges what sentences must be imposed. Since 1986, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission was established, that role has belonged to the Commission. (the federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in 1987.)

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a conservative, criticized the legislation publicly this month, as did his liberal colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, an architect of the original sentencing guidelines. Judges, they believe, should have the freedom to go outside the guideline structure in the kinds of unusual, individual circumstances impossible for Congress to foresee.

We have criticized this legislation repeatedly since the day it was proposed. You can access of all of our criticism here.

The legislation is also unnecessary:

Nationwide, judges depart from sentencing guidelines in 18 percent of cases, according to US Sentencing Commission data. But the American Bar Association says that prosecutors request about three-quarters of those departures, usually for criminal defendants who cooperate in other investigations.

Here are some of the negative aspects of the law:

One provision of the new law orders the US Sentencing Commission to explain every instance in which a federal judge or district frequently sentences criminals to less than the guideline minimum. Another requires data on every judge's sentencing behavior to be handed over to Congress, where it can be released to the public, a move that critics such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, say will result in a ''judicial blacklist.'' The number of judges on the US Sentencing Commission will also be reduced, so that judges are a minority on the panel.

Sen. Kennedy has already introduced legislation to repeal the sentencing law, which was passed as an add-on to the Amber alert bill.

It has ''everything to do with handcuffing judges and eliminating fairness in our federal sentencing system,'' said a statement Kennedy released. ''Enacted without hearings or meaningful debate, the Feeney Amendment was a giant step in the wrong direction.''

Posted Friday :: May 30, 2003