GOP Seeks Big Changes In Federal Prison Sentences
NPR- by Carrie Johnson
January 31, 2012
Every year, federal judges sentence more than 80,000 criminals. Those punishments are supposed to be fair — and predictable. But seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court threw a wrench into the system by ruling that the guidelines that judges use to figure out a prison sentence are only suggestions.
Republicans in Congress say that has led to a lot of bad results. They’re calling for an overhaul of the sentencing system, with tough new mandatory prison terms to bring some order back into the process. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, brought up the subject at a recent hearing.
“A criminal committing a federal crime should receive similar punishment regardless of whether the crime was committed in Richmond, Va., or Richmond, Calif., and that’s why I am deeply concerned about what’s happening to federal sentencing,” Sensenbrenner said.
Since the Supreme Court acted in 2005 to make the sentencing guidelines advisory — not mandatory — Sensenbrenner said, judges in places like New York City have imposed sentences below the guideline ranges almost half the time. But judges only a few hours further north in New York are still following the guidelines.
Former prosecutor Matt Miner — who also served as GOP congressional aide — says that’s not justice.
The way you make sure the guidelines get due respect is to make them respectable.
– Douglas Berman, Ohio State University law professor
“We have a federal system. There should be consistency not just in the same courthouse and on the same floor, or district by district, but across the country, and we’re failing in that,” Miner says.
Douglas Berman, a law professor and sentencing expert at Ohio State University, said, “The way you make sure the guidelines get due respect is to make them respectable.”
A lot of people argue that ever since the Supreme Court weighed in, black men have it a lot worse.
Judge Patti Saris of Massachusetts leads the congressionally created U.S. Sentencing Commission. Saris spoke about the issue at a panel sponsored by the American Constitution Society and the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington earlier this month.
“The average sentence for a black male was 20 percent longer than that for a white male. … And I think what’s important to add there is that no one here is accusing judges of being racist,” Saris said.
So, then, what’s going on?
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