Jamie Olis, 38, was sentenced to a 24-year prison term in Houston recently for financial fraud. When it struck down Washington State’s sentencing law last week, says the New York Times, the Supreme Court probably doomed the federal guidelines that generated Olis’s sentence and others like it. Law Prof. Frank Bowman of Indiana University says his sentence might be readjusted to six months or fewer. The ruling requires any factor that increases a criminal sentence, except for prior convictions, to be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Many sentencing schemes allow or require judges to impose longer sentences based on other criteria, including the defendant’s background and the nature and severity of his crime. The decision may affect sentencing laws in at least seven states in addition to Washington and the federal system, said Kevin Reitz, an expert on sentencing at the University of Colorado. In all of those jurisdictions, many sentenced convicts will challenge their sentences. Prosecutors, defendants and judges in pending and new cases will face an altered landscape. “It throws the whole country’s criminal [justice] system into turmoil,” said Bowman.
In the federal system, which handles a small minority of the nation’s criminal cases, the “vast majority” of 270,000 sentences in the last four years may be affected, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in dissent. “The court ignores the havoc it is about to wreak on trial courts across the country,” she said. The decison “will invalidate the federal guidelines,” Reitz said. The Supreme Court gave trial judges no guidance on how to adjust to the ruling. Federal judges conducting sentencing hearings now must decide whether to ignore the federal sentencing guidelines entirely, to rely on only those aggravating factors that had been proved to the jury or to carry on pending definitive guidance from higher courts.