Criminal Justice Issues

The major purpose of the judicial system is to ensure justice by ensuring that people who violate the law face punishments severity of which is equal to the offense that an individual or organization commits. This necessitates the existence of guidelines to dictate sentences regarding various offenses. Prior to the sentencing, the reform acts, the judiciary had the discretion of imposing different sentences according to the facts in the case. Disparities in sentencing posed various challenges as the judiciary imposed similar penalties for offenses that had different levels of gravity.

The US federal government created the federal sentencing guidelines, which are the rules that define uniform sentencing policy for organizations and individuals who commit serious offenses. However, the sentencing guidelines are not applicable in less serious offenses. It is the fact that the law is not stationary, but dynamic. Various events lead to changes in legislation. Therefore, just like other laws, sentencing guidelines have undergone several changes since their implementation.

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Blakely vs. Washington, 542 U.S 296 (2004) is one of the cases that have helped to shape sentencing guidelines. The case was a challenge to the Washington sentencing guidelines, which just like the federal government guidelines allowed the trial court to increase the defendant’s sentence using facts that the jury did not find. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the defendant’s sentencing by the state trial to a term that exceeded the statutory maximum for his offense, contravened the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right. The judge in the state trial has considered the deliberate cruelty of the defendant in sentencing the defendant (Scheb, 2007). The court helped in shaping sentencing guidelines as it showed that judges should only use facts the jury has found or admissions of the defendants, in formulating sentences for court cases.

Congress envisioned the federal sentencing guidelines to be mandatory. However, the U.S. Supreme court’s ruling in the United States vs. Booker, 543 U.S 220 (2005) relegated the sentencing guidelines to simply an advisory position. In the trial, the court convicted the defendant with intent to distribute cocaine, which according to the criminal history and quantity of the drug warranted a sentence that ranged from 210 to 262 months. However, the judge later found out by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant had greater amount of cocaine, thereby increasing the defendant’s sentence. However, the defendant appealed arguing that the sentence increase violated his Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, which permitted the judge to use facts found by the jury or the defendant’s admission. The Seventh Circuit overturned the sentence because it violated the Sixth Amendment (Bagley & Savage, 2009).

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According to the Booker court, the initial sentencing guidelines contravened the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury by authorizing judges to enhance sentences based on facts that the jury did not determine. However, the Booker court did not invalidate the sentencing guidelines altogether. The Booker court simply removed provisions that made sentencing guidelines mandatory. Therefore, federal judges have no obligation of using the sentencing guidelines (Scheb, 2007). However, there several federal judges who use sentencing guidelines on an advisory basis.

The ruling of the Booker court created confusion in the justice system necessitating the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify several facts in Rita vs. United States 551 U.S. 338 (2007). In Rita vs. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that sentences that courts impose, which are within the range of the sentencing guidelines are presumed reasonable if the defendant appeals the ruling (Ducat, 2012). The court convicted Mr. Rita of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements, since he lied to a federal grand jury. The Supreme Court upheld the court’s ruling on the basis of reasonableness of the sentence. According to the Rita court, the sentencing statutes envisage the sentencing judge and the sentencing commission as having the same objectives, but at different scales, one in wholesale, and the other in retail. The Rita court ruled that the court of appeal should presume reasonableness of the appellate courts in the rulings of the courts. Presumption of reasonableness recognizes the real-world environment of the judge, such that when the judge’s discretionary decision correlates with the sentencing commission, then it is highly probable that the sentence is reasonable. Therefore, the Rita helped to avoid full invalidation of the sentencing guidelines, by upholding that sentences that are in accordance with the sentencing guidelines are reasonable.

The United States vs. Booker invalidated the mandatory features of the sentencing guidelines, and required trial courts to focus on a wider range of factors in sentencing defendants. In addition, the Booker court necessitated appellate courts to review the reasonableness of sentences of trial courts. Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007) helped to reinforce the ruling of the Booker court. In Gall v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the trial court to sentence Brian Gall to 36 months’ probation – instead of the recommended 30 to 37 months imprisonment – after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute ecstasy. In the ruling, the Supreme Court reiterated that the sentencing guidelines are only advisory. Federal courts can set any reasonable sentence as long as they explain the justification of the sentences (Rodgers, 2011).

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The sentencing guidelines have undergone various changes since their formulation. Nowadays it is not mandatory for judges to use sentencing guidelines in sentencing the defendants. However, the sentencing guidelines have greatly helped to reduce disparities in sentences. They ensure that courts give reasonable sentences to defendants.

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