Leaders of the federal judiciary are urging repeal of a law that limits a judge’s authority to issue lighter sentences and requires monitoring of judges who stray from sentencing guidelines, USA Today reports. The unanimous vote of the Judicial Conference of the United States was announced a day after Attorney General John Ashcroft blamed federal judges for exploiting sentencing loopholes to allow “too many criminals” back on the streets.
Carolyn Dineen King of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in in New Orleans, chairwoman of the conference’s executive committee, said Ashcroft was wrong. “A downward departure [lighter sentence] is part of a judge’s discretion,” King said. “It is sparingly used. Judges are not exploiting loopholes.”
Provisions of the Protect Act, passed by Congress this year, require the U.S. Sentencing Commission to develop policy that would limit departures from established sentencing guidelines. The commission is an independent agency that helps create guidelines for the federal courts. The law requires reports to Congress on any judge who departs from the sentencing guidelines.
“When the legislation was considered … an amendment was added to limit judges’ sentencing flexibility,” the conference said. “The judiciary was not asked for its views on this amendment, nor was it advised of its consideration.”
The judges took issue with the provision that requires the Justice Department to keep track of judges who depart from sentencing guidelines. Ashcroft has directed federal prosecutors to track those cases when judges returned lesser punishments and instructed prosecutors to challenge sentences that are deemed too lenient.