Paul Cassell

Former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell says he has "mixed feelings" about Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that vastly expanded the discretion federal judges can exercise when sentencing people to prison.

The high court overturned two appeals court decisions that had negated the sentences imposed by trial court judges. In doing so, the Supreme Court provided trial court judges with greater power to impose what they believe are reasonable sentences, even if these are different from what is called for by federal sentencing guidelines.

Cassell, who has been a long-standing advocate for victims, also has been an outspoken critic of mandatory minimum sentences that could result in extremely harsh sentences that he believed were disproportionately tough for a particular crime. He recently stepped down from the federal bench to resume work as a law school professor at the University of Utah.

"I think (Monday's) decision is clearly going to embolden trial court judges to deviate from the sentencing guidelines more often," Cassell said. "I think if this is used wisely, giving the trial courts increased discretion could be a good thing."

However, he is guarded in his praise for the ruling and hopes that the pendulum has not swung too far the other way.

"Sometimes people confuse mandatory minimum sentences with the guidelines," he said. "I am an opponent of the mandatory minimum sentences, but a strong supporter of the guidelines."

Mandatory minimum sentences provide judges with no choice at sentencing. Instead they must impose sentences required by Congress, no matter what the circumstances of the case might be.

The federal sentencing guidelines, however, give trial court judges some leeway when sentencing an individual.

"(The) opinion has the potential to subvert the guidelines if trial judges go too far in ignoring the guidelines," Cassell said. "I'm hoping that trial court judges will responsibly use the discretion the Supreme Court has given them."

A key issue in all this was a gap in sentences handed out in crack cocaine cases versus cocaine powder cases. The sentencing guidelines called for a five-year minimum prison term for possessing five grams of crack. One would need to posses 100 times more powder cocaine, or 500 grams, to get a five-year prison term.

Civil rights activists have long insisted that the disparity in sentencing for crack-related crimes unfairly penalized blacks in inner cities, where the usually cheaper crack is more prevalent, as opposed to powder cocaine cases often involving white defendants, who were perceived as more affluent suburbanites.

The Supreme Court in one ruling addressed the case of Derrick Kimbrough, a convicted crack dealer arrested in Virginia. The guidelines called for a sentence of 14 to 17.5 years in prison, but a Virginia federal judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison for the drug-related portion of his conviction.

An appeals court overturned Kimbrough's sentence, but the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision.

The Supreme Court also reversed an appeals court decision regarding an Iowa man, Brian Gall, involving his distribution of the drug Ecstacy.

Although the two cases involved drug convictions, the impact will affect prison sentences for all federal crimes.

Cassell describes what occurred as "a shift of sentencing power from the courts of appeals to trial court judges" and a message to appellate courts to intervene only on rare occasions to correct disparate sentences.

As former chairman of the Judicial Conference's Criminal Law Committee, Cassell spoke for the federal judiciary when he sent a letter to the president and Congress supporting the Federal Sentencing Commission's recommendation to reduce sentences for crack cocaine possession versus powder.

"One possible difficulty is that with hundreds of judges around the country, there is a risk of having geographical disparities creep into the system. There needs to be some kind of common currency for all judges around the country," Cassell said.