WASHINGTON—Arguing that some federal judges have been handing out less prison time since a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called Tuesday for mandatory minimum sentences for criminals.
"This trend is troubling to me and should be troubling to all victims of crime," Gonzales said in a speech at the National Center for Victims of Crime.
He credited tough federal sentences with helping to keep the nation's crime rate at historic lows.
Federal sentencing guidelines, which Congress enacted in 1984, were designed to provide for uniform sentencing across the country and to ensure that judges weren't too lenient. Critics, including many on the federal bench, complained that the formulas gave judges little discretion in determining how much punishment should fit a particular crime.
In January, a split Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines were unconstitutional but stopped short of throwing them out. Instead, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that they should be advisory—not mandatory—to help judges determine reasonable sentences.
Gonzales said that since the ruling the Justice Department had gathered evidence showing "a drift toward lesser sentences."
Justice Department officials said Tuesday that since the high court's ruling the number of cases in which a sentence dipped below the federally established minimum had risen even though prosecutors hadn't asked for the reductions. Such lesser sentences made up 7.5 percent of cases in fiscal year 2003. In the approximately six months since the Supreme Court's ruling, they've risen to 12.7 percent, according to department officials.
Gonzales cited a case in South Carolina in which a man who had pleaded guilty to federal weapons and gun-trafficking charges had absconded while out on bond. U.S. marshals took him into custody again after a six-hour standoff. The defendant faced up to 27 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The judge in the case sentenced him to 10 years and offered no explanation for his decision.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors have had more difficulty getting witnesses to cooperate, Gonzales said. The department didn't provide figures to back up that claim. Such cooperation was a way to earn a reduced sentence under the federal guidelines.
The attorney general said Tuesday that he supported mandatory minimum sentences with the upper end of the sentences left flexible. He also said he supported studying legislation to fix the system, but he didn't endorse any particular bill.
Mary Price, the general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the new system was working and had a built-in check for cases in which a judge veered off too widely.
"What he's calling for is unnecessary," Price said. "The appeals court can smooth out some of the wrinkles that we're seeing."
The Sentencing Initiative, a bipartisan panel composed of prosecutors and defense attorneys, has urged Congress to give the issue serious study before enacting any changes. The group—which is led by former Attorney General Ed Meese, a Republican, and former Deputy Attorney General Phillip Heymann, a Democrat—opposes mandatory minimum sentences.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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