Two articles in the Chicago Tribune this weekend highlight the need for judicial discretion and flexibility in federal sentencing law.
In 1987, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which wrote the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines apply in all federal cases, and until the Supreme Court decided U.S. v. Booker in 2005, they were mandatory. After Booker, the guidelines are advisory -- which means that judges must still use and consider them, but can sentence outside of them when the facts of the case, the uniqueness of the offender, or justice demand it. The Tribune explains the basics here.
But Booker isn't retroactive -- which means that there are thousands of federal offenders sentenced before 2005 still serving prison sentences handed out under mandatory guidelines. And not all of those sentences were just or sensible.
One example: Reynolds Wintersmith.
The Tribune details how Wintersmith, a first-time offender, got a life sentence under the then-mandatory guidelines in 1994.
Reynolds Wintersmith's first conviction was a costly one.
At 20 he was sent away for life after being convicted in a large-scale drug conspiracy.
It was a mandatory sentence that troubled even the judge, who questioned if lawmakers really intended this kind of outcome for someone so young. ...
Under the guidelines, Wintersmith's crimes were churned through a mathematical formula that spit out a sentence for the judge to impose. A number of factors jacked up his punishment. He was convicted of being part of a Gangster Disciples-run drug conspiracy in Rockford. The law also held him accountable for being a leader in the gang and pushing large quantities of cocaine and crack on the street. The gang also used weapons to protect its drug trade. It all added up to mandatory life, a sentence in which the judge had no say. ...
And the federal judge who handed down the sentence lamented at the time that his hands were tied by mandatory sentencing guidelines.
"Even though … other members (of the conspiracy) … seem to me to be more significantly involved, and there ought to be some latitude for the court to take that into consideration when you have a 17-year-old who gets involved … there is not another alternative available," U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard said while sentencing Wintersmith. "It gives me pause to think that that was the intent of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life, but in any event, it's there."
Wintersmith, like many federal prisoners, has worked hard to educate and improve himself during his 17 years in prison, and he has a group of supporters working against long odds to get him out of prison or get him a presidential commutation, which could let him return to society.
The stories highlight so much of what FAMM is working to promote and protect: judges should have the power to look an individual in the eye and give him a sentence that fits, that protects the public, that allows for rehabilitation, that takes all the facts and circumstances into account, and that isn't either too harsh or too lenient. The goal of our justice system should be the kind of sentence Reynolds Wintersmith didn't get.