Judges May Not Impose Harsh Sentences Without Cause

harsh sentencesThe importance of having a qualified Illinois criminal defense attorney cannot be overstated when a person faces serious federal or state drug charges. Prosecutors and judges often deal with drug offenders harshly—in many cases, too harshly. Zealous representation is often the only safeguard a person has when facing years, if not decades, in prison.

An Unexplained Sentence

A recent decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago illustrates how good representation can protect a client’s interests. The defendant in this case pleaded guilty to possessing more than 750 grams of heroin. While he did not contest his guilt, his attorney still proved invaluable when it came to sentencing.

In federal drug cases, judges must adhere to a series of guidelines published by the United States Sentencing Commission. These guidelines establish “ranges” based on a defendant’s crime and past record. Prosecutors and defense attorneys may then argue for adjustments upward or downward from the sentencing range. The judge determines the ultimate sentence, but any significant departure from the guidelines must be explained.

In this case, the sentencing guidelines advised a prison sentence of 78 to 97 months in prison. The prosecution argued for 180 months—15 years—based on the claim the defendant’s heroin “was of higher than average purity,” and therefore more dangerous than heroin seized in other cases within the Chicago area. But the defendant’s attorney replied the heroin was actually significantly less pure than the national average, and there was no evidence tying the defendant’s drugs to any serious injury or death.

The judge accepted the defense counsel’s argument on that point. Nevertheless, he sentenced the defendant to 97 months in prison—the maximum specified in the guidelines. The judge explained the extra time in jail would give the defendant time to learn “some skills that will help him when he gets out of prison.”

Defense counsel then pressed the judge for additional explanation as to why he imposed the highest sentence advised by the guidelines. The judge was not prepared for that question. He replied no defense attorney had ever asked him to justify a sentence before. The judge said the attorney’s client had committed a “very serious crime,” and that was enough.

As it turned out, that was not enough for the 7th Circuit. In a July 3rd opinion, a three-judge panel vacated the 97-month sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing (with a different judge, as the original trial judge retired). Judge Richard Posner, writing for the 7th Circuit, said sentencing judges are “not permitted to pick a point in a guidelines range arbitrarily.” The judge must calculate a sentence using the factors specified in the guidelines and offer an appropriate explanation for any upward or downward departure. He may not simply impose the maximum sentence.

Always Fight for Your Rights

A case like this demonstrates why, even if you may be guilty of a crime, an experienced Chicago criminal law attorney is still essential to ensure your rights are respected at sentencing. If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today.

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