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Freed to Reduce Sentences, Courts Add Time More Often

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A year after a Supreme Court ruling that defense attorneys, federal defendants and their advocates hoped would reduce prison time for federal convicts, the new rules have actually allowed longer sentences more often. And the local district now complies with the old guidelines even more often than does the average federal court nationwide.

 

Before January 2005, defendants in U.S. District courts were sentenced under guidelines designed to eliminate the disparity in prison terms from judge to judge. Those guidelines, in force since 1984, had caused judges to mete out sentences based on a formula, rather than their own judgments. Last year's Supreme Court ruling, known as the Booker decision, ruled such mandatory guidelines were unconstitutional. The guidelines were merely advisory, the court ruled, and had to be considered along with extenuating circumstances.

 

More than a year since Booker, a new U.S. Sentencing Commission report says things aren't much better - from the defense's point of view -- in the way prison sentences are doled out.

 

In its one-year study, the commission concludes that, on average, federal judges nationwide have continued to sentence defendants within the guidelines in 62 percent of all cases. And they are going above the guidelines at more than double their previous rate (now 1.6 percent of the time).

 

Locally, of the 428 defendants sentenced in the federal Western District of Pennsylvania courts, 297 (69 percent) were sentenced within the old guideline range, while 1.4 percent were above what the guideline called for - only slightly lower than the national rate.

 

It's hard to know how the current local numbers stack up to local sentencing before Booker; mandatory statistical data wasn't kept until the 2005 ruling. But one area where there has been some success in getting sentences below federal guidelines has been in crack-cocaine cases. Before Booker, sentences in those cases were three times longer than in cases involving powder cocaine. Thanks to Booker, such "unwarranted disparities in sentencing" are happening less often now, says Lisa Freeland, head of the district's federal public defender's office.

 

But they still happen, says Freeland, and this disparity is one of the main factors contributing to another commission finding: Even under Booker, African-Americans receive sentences that are 5 percent longer than the sentences given to white defendants.

 

"It has been a year and, by and large, sentences are still within the guidelines," Freeland says. "In the future, if the courts continue to defer to the guidelines and give them supremacy to other sentencing factors, I think you're going to see a direct [court] challenge to the guideline calculations themselves."

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