Judges are supposed to be independent. Yet that very independence has created a situation where wildly different sentences were handed down for very similar crimes - making the justice system seem unfair.
One judge would give a stiff prison term for a certain crime, while another, faced with the identical federal crime and a convicted person of similar background, would give a very light sentence.Because of intense dissatisfaction with such inequities, Congress in 1984 passed major crime legislation, including setting up a Sentencing Commission to draft some guidelines in federal cases. President Reagan appointed the seven members, including three judges.
The commission did its work, setting up minimum and maximum sentences for each crime and requiring judges to cite unusual circumstances in handing down a sentence outside those limits. The guidelines also eliminated parole. Prisoners could only have their sentences reduced by good behavior. The new rules were adopted about 10 months ago.
Unfortunately, they have not been universally accepted. Many judges have felt restricted by the guidelines. Defense lawyers have filed lawsuits challenging them. Decisions by lower courts on the validity of the guidelines have been about evenly split.
In a ruling at the highest level so far, a U.S. appeals court last week ruled 2-1 against the guidelines, saying they violate the Constitution's separation of powers. The court said the commission that drew up the system included several judges who were thereby involved in what was essentially a political act.
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on the guidelines in early October. In the meantime, the entire sentencing system has been thrown into doubt. What happens to people sentenced under the guidelines that past year, for example?
The Supreme Court needs to act quickly on this matter. If it upholds the law, well and good. If not, Congress should move swiftly to draft new legislation to overcome any legal objections.
It is clear that some orderly system should function in the federal courts in the name of fairness and equity. Much less latitude should be left to the whim of individual judges.
Certainly, each case has its individual circumstances. But as long as guidelines allow some leeway for jurists and provide a loophole for exceptional cases, there is no reason why judges can't function within such reasonable limits.