The U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with its conflicting rulings on whether judges or juries should decide criminal punishments, says the Los Angeles Times. The fate of California’s nearly 30-year-old sentencing law hangs on the outcome. After an hourlong argument session yesterday, it was unclear whether the justices would uphold the state’s system or give thousands of inmates a chance for a shorter prison term.
In 1977, California set a prison term for felonies that would be the norm in most cases. Judges were permitted to impose a longer or shorter sentence than this so-called middle term if they decided that certain factors warranted doing so. Now, that sentencing system has come under challenge based on recent Supreme Court rulings that say juries, not judges, should decide whether those factors should lead to potentially longer prison terms. Yesterday, the high court debated whether California’s system set guidelines for its judges, or legal mandates. The case may turn on that distinction.