Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered all U.S. attorneys to tell the main Justice Department about many cases in which federal judges impose lighter sentences than suggested in sentencing guidelines. A July 28 memo from Ashcroft, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, will allow Justice to appeal more sentencing decisions. The Washington Post reports that the memo amended a section of the United States Attorneys’ Manual that previously said prosecutors had to report only those sentences that prosecutors wanted to appeal. Now, they must report all “downward departure” sentences that meet certain criteria in nine categories.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) accused Ashcroft of an “ongoing attack on judicial independence” and of encouraging “a blacklist of judges who impose lesser sentences than those recommended by the sentencing guidelines.”
Justice Department lawyers said the change is needed because of the increasing willingness of some judges to ignore sentencing guidelines.
“The purpose of this is to make sure that all of our U.S. attorneys understand that we intend to apply U.S. law evenly across all jurisdictions,” said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. “They should be aware of excessive downward departures and, if necessary, appeal those decisions.”
Congress set the stage for the latest showdown over sentencing practices in April when it adopted an amendment to the “Amber alert” legislation on child abductions. The amendment, crafted and pushed by the Justice Department, restricted the ability of federal judges to depart from the sentencing guidelines and made it easier to appeal and overturn “downward departures” from the guidelines.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission says that 35 percent of federal sentences in fiscal 2001 fell below the range set in the sentencing guidelines. Almost half of those involved plea bargain agreements or other cases of “substantial assistance” to prosecutors. Federal judges imposed sentences that exceeded the guidelines in fewer than 1 percent of cases; the Justice Department appealed 19 of 11,000 “downward departure” sentencing decisions.