By Cynthia Cotts
July 9 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Sentencing Commission should work to simplify federal guidelines and keep them advisory, rather than return to a mandatory system, a group of federal judges said.
The judges spoke today at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, where the commission is holding the third in a series of public hearings on policy issues.
The seven-member commission should work with Congress to create a “politically viable” plan to simplify the sentencing rules, which are “ridiculed” in other countries, said Jon Newman, who sits on the appeals court in New York. Several other judges said they agreed with him.
The guidelines grew out of a congressional effort to eliminate sentencing disparities and standardize the punishment for similar crimes committed by similar offenders. Congress set up the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984 and gave it the power to issue binding guidelines on federal judges.
Under the guidelines, a convicted defendant’s crime served as a starting point, putting him in a range of permissible sentences. Judges then increased the prison term by a specified period if, for example, a gun was fired during the crime. Other factors, such as acceptance of responsibility for the offense, led to a sentence reduction.
In 2005, the Supreme Court decision U.S. v. Booker converted the sentencing guidelines from a mandatory system to an advisory one.
Denny Chin, a district judge in Manhattan, praised the Supreme Court for its Booker decision.
“Most if not all of my colleagues in the Southern District of New York would agree the system is better post-Booker,” Chin testified today. “We have more flexibility to do what we are supposed to do -- to judge -- and we are not limited to merely applying mechanical rules and doing mathematical calculations.”
Last month, Chin sentenced Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison for a decades-long fraud that cheated investors of billions of dollars.
Richard Arcara, a district judge in Buffalo, New York, also praised the Booker decision for returning sentencing discretion to judges.
“Booker has improved the quality of the sentencing jurisprudence,” Arcara testified.
However, the new system is even more time-consuming for judges, Arcara said. In addition to performing guideline calculations, resolving objections and addressing motions for a reduced sentence, they must also now address motions for a sentence outside the advisory range, elaborately justifying each sentence, he said.
Arcara, who said he had 230 criminal cases on his docket last week, called for simpler guidelines.