The Supreme Court’s federal sentencing ruling yesterday “calls into question thousands of sentences across the country and throws open how the federal government investigates, charges, and negotiates with accused criminals,” says the Chicago Tribune. A 5-4 majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer said 17-year-old federal sentencing guideliness are not mandatory. Criminal defense lawyers and other experts predicted confusion and inconsistency in sentences, as lower courts try to make sense of the Supreme Court’s pronouncements.
The decision appears to give judges significantly more discretion in how they sentence defendants–an outcome the guidelines were designed to curtail. Some analysts said the ruling threatens to undo years of sentencing reform at the federal level and stop state efforts to develop uniform guidelines. The decision was not necessarily a big win for criminal defendants. Those with pending cases run the risk of getting a stiffer sentence from an unforgiving judge if they elect to challenge their sentence.