I really believe that if more regular people knew about how sentencing really occurs, they would be horrified. Marc highlights the acquitted conduct issue which is baffling to me (the actual 11th Circuit opinion which he references can be read here, and Judge Barkett's concurrence -- blasting the idea of using acquitted conduct at sentencing -- is definitely worth a read; here is Berman's take on this issue). Under the current state of the law, if you are charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and murder, and a jury finds you not guilty of the murder and guilty of the felon in possession, then a sentencing judge could still sentence you as though you committed the murder. I'm not kidding.
There are many, many other troubling sentencing issues. Here's a few:
- Why should crack offenders get sentenced on a 100-1 ratio to cocaine users?
- Why are probation officers allowed to interpret the law and then advise judges of their opinions in an ex parte manner?
- Why doesn't the Confrontation Clause apply with the same force at sentencing and trial?
- Why does the preponderance standard apply at sentencing when at trial the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt?
- Why don't the rules of evidence apply at sentencing?
And the Southern District just saw one of the worst sentencing problems (as serious as using acquitted conduct) -- punishing someone for exercising his right to a jury trial. One of our judges just sentenced Eduardo A. Masferrer to 30 years in prison on a white-collar offense. Thirty *years*! Thirty years ago I was three. In thirty years, Masferrer will be long gone. His co-defendants, who pleaded guilty, were sentenced to 28 months a piece. Ellen Podgor touches on the issue of being punished for proceeding to trial here.
The reason for the huge disparity between trial and plea is in part because some judges, after trial, hit the defendant with all of the guideline adjustments and enhancements possible whereas if there is a plea, both the prosecutor, probation officer, and judge are willing to negotiate those adjustments and enhancements away. This is especially evident in white collar cases like Masferrer's. It is even more true in weaker cases. In weaker cases, the prosecution really wants to bargain for lower sentences (so as not to lose at trial), increasing the risks of testing the government's case at a trial.
It's for this reason -- the enormous risks to defendants -- that trial numbers are way way down, especially in white-collar cases. The solution? I'm not sure. I suspect that our big sentencing changes (i.e. Apprendi/Blakely/Booker) aren't finished (and I'm sure that the Supreme Court will revisit the acquitted conduct issue)... But I never count on those sorts of changes. So my personal decision may sound a bit strange, but I think we (both sides) should just try more and more cases.
Anyway, enough for my Sunday rant. Back to the regular business of the blog....