Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt on federal and state sentencing guidelines by rejecting a practice that judges have used to boost punishments in thousands of criminal cases. Now judges across the nation have begun to trim sentences and to look to Washington for help in avoiding what legal analysts say could be chaos in the U.S. court system, reports USA Today. A few lower-court judges have ruled that the high court’s decision forces them to strike down the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which have been in place since 1987. “If our decision is wrong, may the Supreme Court speedily reverse it,” U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner wrote on Friday in a ruling that would cut back a Wisconsin drug defendant’s time.
In a dramatic turn in the national debate over how much discretion judges should have in sentencing criminals, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 24 that judges cannot increase a defendant’s prison time beyond what sentencing guidelines allow – unless a jury has found that there are specific grounds for such an increase. The decision, which overturned part of a Washington state law, also shot holes in state and federal sentencing guidelines that allow judges to go beyond usual sentencing ranges in crimes that involve aggravating factors–use of a gun, a large quantity or drugs, or cruelty, for example. The ruling is unlikely to be applied retroactively. But across the nation, tens of thousands of convicts whose appeals are in progress could try to use the ruling to get reduced sentences.