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Louisville Courier-Journal; January 15, 2024


This week's U.S. Supreme Court's two-part ruling—giving judges back the discretion they lost when Congress adopted mandatory minimum sentence guidelines 21 years ago—is cause for celebration.

The tug of war between Congress and the judiciary over which branch ultimately controls sentencing will go on, but there's now hope of eliminating some clear injustices.

Every year, 60,000 people are sentenced in federal courts. And in the wake of this week's ruling, thousands are likely to press claims that their sentences under the guidelines were unduly harsh and that, as the Court's majority found, they were punished for allegations that they never had a chance to defend themselves against before a jury.

The fix the Supreme Court has ordered calls for the sentencing guidelines to remain, but only as recommendations, not requirements. In other words, judges must take them into account, but on appeal, sentences can be reviewed for their reasonableness.

A foolish uniformity isn't fair. Yet that is what the guidelines had been producing. And that is why a federal judge in New York resigned in protest in 2003, calling the guidelines "unnecessarily cruel and rigid."

In hopes of fixing one problem—wildly disparate sentences for the same crimes in different jurisdictions in the war on drugs—Congress created another by authorizing the guidelines. The rigid numerical scores they required didn't just reel in the big fish that were the target of tougher sentencing, but also thousands of small-fry and first-timers, whose excessive sentences have imposed great expense on taxpayers and great frustration on judges, who were prevented from exercising reasonable discretion. Under the guidelines, for example, judges could impose longer sentences than set by a jury, but had no power to lower them, regardless of any new or mitigating facts.

The tough-on-crime crowd in Congress, and those who invest so much energy in demonizing so-called activist judges, may not appreciate the opportunity the Supreme Court has given them.

Instead of rushing into a turf battle, they should recognize that this is a good time for thoughtful deliberation about the human, social and financial costs that inflexible mandatory minimum sentences have inflicted.

“In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust.”
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

If you agree…

Write Congress to tell them that mandatory minimums are unjust.