Supreme Court Continues to Undercut Sentencing Guidelines

Building on its 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, the U.S. Supreme Court has now held that, in reviewing a district court’s sentence in criminal cases, appellate courts must review the sentence under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. This decision really puts the guidelines in their place, and it makes it crystal clear that, while the sentencing guidelines remain the starting point in federal sentencing, they are not the ending point.

In Gall v. United States, 128 S.Ct.586 (2007), the Supreme Court reemphasized that sentencing is a matter of district court discretion, discretion that had been limited, if not eliminated, by the sentencing guidelines in the pre-Booker heyday.

Gall involved a young defendant who was charged with conspiring with two codefendants to distribute 10,000 MDMA/ecstasy pills. The defendant was 21 at the time, a drug user, and a college student. The defendant left the conspiracy, completed college, and started his own business. He haad no other criminal history and he did not organize or lead the conspiracy, which involved no weapons or violence.

The other two members of the conpiracy received prison sentences of 30 and 35 months, respectively. This young defendant received a probation sentence 36 months’ probation-when the guidelines mandated a sentence of 30-37 months in prison.

The US Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision, finding that the sentencing judge failed to justify its extreme departure from the guidelines.

The US Supreme Court reinstated the probation sentence imposed by the district judge, and it rejected the appellate court’s criticisms that the district judge gave too much weight to the fact that the defendant withdrew from the conspiracy.

The Supreme Court also found that additional mitigating factors, including the defendant’s young age, the fact that he had completed college and founded a profitable business, and that many supporters had written the district judge to urge leniency.

As Laurie Fulton has noted: “As I read Gall, it requires an individualized analysis of certain factors in reaching a sentencing determination, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach under the guidelines.”

David Finn

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