Starting today, federal judges will have less discretion to craft sentences for criminals because of a little-debated new law that increases the minimum amount of prison time for several crimes.
The Boston Globe says that the law targets areas like Massachusetts, where federal judges impose lenient sentences at a higher rate than the national average. The measure could lead to “report cards” that single out judges who frequently sentence criminals to less prison time than federal guidelines suggest. “It turns me into a bureaucrat, and I do not believe for a moment that the public wants that,” said federal trial judge Nancy Gertner of Boston.
A parade of critics — Supreme Court justices, the American Bar Association, the Judicial Conference of the United States, and several current and former federal prosecutors — has attacked the bill for taking discretion from trial judges. The law was added to the popular Amber Alert bill signed into law by President Bush on April 30.
Congress took the unprecedented step of dictating penalties for specific crimes to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the independent body it established in 1986 to draft the sentencing guidelines that bind all federal district judges. “If you’re going to have a rule of law and not a rule of man, you have to treat the same crime with the same sanction, no matter how much money he has or what the bias of the judge he appears in front of happens to be,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who sponsored the measure.
As a result of the Feeney amendment, one judge said, judges “are pretty much out of sentencing.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) says he will try to persuade Congress to repeal the new law.