A key provision of a New York State law under which repeat offenders can be sentenced more harshly is unconstitutional because the longer prison terms are based on findings by judges, not juries, says a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling reported by the New York Times. Some prosecutors said new legislation could be required to preserve the politically popular principle that repeat offenders should be subject to longer sentences.
The ruling opened the way for what could be hundreds of challenges to sentences by inmates convicted of felonies like robbery, assault and drug distribution since 2004. The ruling applies only in New York. But it is the latest in a string of rulings based on Supreme Court decisions over the past decade that have rejected sentencing laws that the justices have said curtailed the constitutional right to have all disputed facts decided by jurors with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The New York law directed trial judges to determine whether longer sentences were called for after examining “the history and character of the defendant” with three or more felony convictions and to consider the circumstances of the crime. In one of five cases heard by the court, a man convicted of stealing a wallet at a bus terminal had been sentenced to 20 years to life in prison as a repeat offender because of more than 70 similar thefts. Without the persistent felony provision, he would have faced a maximum of four years.