Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
In 2003, a federal court found Freddy Booker guilty of possessing approximately ninety-two grams of crack cocaine. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, that conviction called for seventeen to twenty-two years in prison. Instead, the judge sentenced Booker to thirty years.
Booker appealed his sentence to the Supreme Court, and last week the Court ruled in his favor. The result is a chance to re-visit our approach to crime and punishment.
Chuck Colson has told “BreakPoint” listeners before about the injustices caused by the sentencing guidelines: In the name of predictability, they remove all discretion from judges and make justice a one-size-fits-all operation. When the guidelines are combined with mandatory minimum sentences, the results are even more bizarre and counterproductive.
In Booker’s case, the judge increased his sentence because the guidelines permitted him to consider evidence that had never been presented to the jury — evidence that did not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but only by a preponderance of the evidence.
On January 12, the Supreme Court agreed. It found that the Constitution requires that a jury find a defendant “guilty of all the elements of the crime with which he is charged” — a jury, not simply a judge.
It is equally settled that the standard of proof required by the Constitution is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Labeling a fact “a sentencing factor” instead of an “element,” as the Guidelines do, doesn’t change these constitutional requirements.
The Court also found that, ultimately, the Guidelines undermine the role of the jury in “standing between the individual and the power of the government.” This is crucial because, after all, the government enjoys a monopoly on the power to deprive a person of life and liberty. In the Bookerruling, the procedures the Court overturned allowed prosecutors to circumvent the jury system in sentencing.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the Court didn’t overturn the entire Guidelines. But what it did overturn was so central to the way they are applied that Congress will have to revisit the federal government’s approach to crime and punishment.
We welcome this development. Chuck, for nearly thirty years, and I, over the last three years, have been visiting prisons and have seen the same thing: men and women confined for twenty to thirty years for relatively lesser offenses, others getting off lightly. The Guidelines have not produced justice, only bitterness. It is true that increasing sentences and eliminating judicial discretion was a way for politicians to appear “tough on crime,” especially drugs. I know that firsthand from my time as a state senator and attorney general. Even if the results were grossly unfair, criticizing the system left you open to a charge of being “soft on crime.”
Now the Court’s decision, along with a dropping crime rate, makes reasoned debate possible once again. Christians, who understand that doing justice is a matter of wisdom, not fear, should give their representatives the permission they need to resist political posturing and undo past mistakes. Then, perhaps the fairness and wisdom of our system will also be beyond any reasonable doubt.