State Sentencing Rule Variations Before High Court


Attorneys for a Washington State man who kidnapped his estranged wife want the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the way at least nine states let judges decide when to hand down stiffer-than-usual sentences. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the case being argued today could change the way Washington has punished the criminals deemed the worst by judges for two decades. The question is whether judges should be able to hand down sentences that are more severe than those in sentencing guidelines, tacking on extra prison time for reasons such as “deliberate cruelty” or that the victim was “particularly vulnerable.”

A lawyer for Ralph Howard Blakely Jr. argues that any factors that could increase someone’s prison sentence should be put before a jury — and found beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutor John Knodell of Grant County, where Blakely was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison despite facing a standard sentence of roughly four years, says judges should have some leeway to make sure the punishment fits the crimes and the offender.

The high court has made two major decisions in recent years that require juries, not judges, to decide certain factual questions that could increase sentences. If the justices find Washington’s sentencing methods flawed, it could mean lighter sentences for many defendants who got stiffer-than-usual penalties and are still trying to appeal.

It could also mean a flood of petitions from thousands of convicts who got such sentences during the past two decades, though those who pleaded guilty could face higher hurdles.


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