WASHINGTON – Too many criminals are getting light sentences because of a Supreme Court decision earlier this year, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday.
He urged Congress to approve new punishment guidelines to make sure federal judges can’t be too lenient.
Gonzales said that there is evidence of a growing disparity in jail terms and “a drift toward lesser sentences” since the court ruled in January that judges do not have to follow previous sentencing guidelines that had been in place for nearly two decades.
The overwhelming majority of sentences imposed since that decision – 86 percent – continue to fall within the range set out in the guidelines or were proposed by prosecutors to reward defendants’ cooperation and other factors.
But there has been an increase in the percentage of shorter sentences imposed by judges who were exercising their newfound discretion, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Gonzales’ call to action stands in contrast to pleas for patience from a wide range of former law enforcement officials, academics and judges who say the new system has been in place only a few months.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, a Republican, and former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, a Democrat, are among those advocating increased flexibility in sentencing, but urging Congress not to rush to make changes because the system is not in crisis.
Frank Bowman, a sentencing expert at the University of Missouri law school, said he expects the variation will slowly increase over time. Bowman said the growth in shorter sentences so far has been modest; Gonzales called the trend troubling.
Congress created the guidelines in the 1980s mainly to reduce disparities between judges.
But the high court said making the guidelines mandatory violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because they call for judges to make factual decisions that could add to prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, the guidelines now are only of an advisory nature.
As a result, federal judges are free to sentence convicted criminals as they see fit, but they may be subject to reversal if appeals courts find them “unreasonable.”