St. Joseph Michigan Criminal Defense Blog

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Should Semantics and Human Bias Affect Sentencing After Conviction?

Sentencing Guidelines

Uniformity. Discretion. Deference. Disparity. Proportionate. Advisory. These are just some of the words being used to describe the recent decision of the Michigan Supreme Court to rule the state’s sentencing guidelines unconstitutional. All sides of the controversy, including criminal defense attorneys in Berrien County, are weighing in on the potential effects on Michigan’s criminal justice system.

The sentencing guidelines, which have been in effect since 1999, were passed by the Michigan Legislature to give judges binding rules for sentencing ranges and increase parity among individual judges throughout the state. Recently, however, the Legislature has been reconsidering the sentencing structure because it has not fulfilled the vision that lawmakers had for it, nor has it appeared to have any impact on reducing crime.

People v. Lockridge, which was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court because the judge had increased the defendant’s minimum sentence by ten months beyond the maximum time set by the guidelines, involved a man who killed his wife in a domestic dispute. The situation also had exacerbating circumstances: the couple’s three children witnessed their father strangle their mother and were then left at the home with her dead body. The husband, who had a record of domestic violence, was violating a court order by being in the residence.

Under the guidelines, the acceptable range of sentencing for convicted criminals could only be calculated using evidence that the defendant had admitted to or facts before the jury. The higher court ruled that the deviation from the guidelines effectively deprived defendants of their right to a trial by jury, violating their Sixth Amendment rights. Ironically, this specific defendant’s sentence was not reduced given the case’s extenuating circumstances.

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court had called mandatory sentencing guidelines into question in Alleyne v. United States when a judge increased a defendant’s sentence based upon facts that were never submitted to the jury. The jury convicted the defendant for “carrying” a firearm. The judge found that the firearm had also been “brandished,” increasing the minimum sentence by 2 years. In that case, the United States Supreme Court also said that only a jury could determine these facts, violating that defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

So what does this mean for criminal defendants? First, for those who have already been convicted of a crime and sentenced, they may contact a criminal defense attorney and appeal for resentencing, in essence asking the judge to use his or her own discretion this go-round instead of using the guidelines. For those who are currently awaiting trial or sentencing, the result is as yet unknown. The sentence for those convicted may be at the discretion of a judge who, as a human with opinions, may be too harsh or too lenient. It will be some time before any pattern emerges. In the meantime, the advice and counsel of a prominent criminal defense attorney in Berrien County will be important in the outcome of the sentencing phase of any criminal trial. For further information or assistance please contact the Peter J. Johnson Law Office, PLLC at 269.982.1100 or visit www.AttorneyPeterJohnson.com.

Source: Detroit Free Press, “Michigan judges get more leeway in sentencing,” Kathleen Gray, July 30, 2015

Secondary Sources:
The Elkhart Truth, “Q&A: A look at Michigan sentencing after court strikes law,” David Eggert, Aug. 6, 2015

Southgate News Herald, “Michigan judges allowed more discretion in deciding sentences for crimes,” Jessica Strachan, Aug. 4, 2015

Tri-County Times, “The final decision on Michigan’s sentencing guidelines,” Aug. 5, 2015

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