Sentencing Made Simple

More convicted criminals may be handed lenient sentences under a ruling by the Supreme Court this week. The high court, possibly realizing that result of its decision, said "the ball now lies in Congress' court" to impose new strict sentencing guidelines for federal courts.

Congress should not hesitate to act. Its original sentencing guidelines, passed in 1987, helped cut crime in the United States over the past two decades. The guidelines, which were mandatory until this ruling, put an end to the often-arbitrary discretion of judges that let too many criminals out of prison early, while also providing some fairness in imposing uniform sentencing for similar crimes.

The Supreme Court's ruling said those guidelines allowed judges to impose extra sentencing based on evidence that no jury had found to be true. This practice violates a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial - including sentencing.

What Congress overlooked can now be corrected, and should be corrected, by Congress and not the Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the court acknowledged that the proper role of Congress is to set sentencing limits. But then in a 5-4 split led by Justice Stephen Breyer, who helped craft the original guidelines, the court laid out a judicial way to continue using the guidelines. Judges "must" consult the guidelines even if they treat them as advisory, and sentences can be overturned by an appeals court if a sentence is not deemed "reasonable."

Congress can't let that jerry-built system last too long. It must write new guidelines that put more faith in the ability of juries to administer justice, as the Sixth Amendment calls for, and which a portion of the court's ruling seems to have overlooked.

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