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September 17, 2004

Why the federal system is not worth saving from Apprendi-land

The rulings and analysis in US v. Johns, 2004 WL 2053275 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 15, 2004), make the case legally noteworthy (details here). But the underlying facts in Johns, especially when compared to the facts in the Angelos mandatory minimum case that made headlines this week (links and stories here), provides dramatic evidence of why the federal sentencing system has not, in actuality, met the noble goals of the Sentencing Reform Act. Moreover, it also provides a strong reason why it is finally time for Justice Breyer to buy his ticket to Apprendi-land.

Recall that in the Angelos case from Utah, US District Judge Paul Cassell is struggling with the fact that federal law calls for him to impose a sentence of 63 years on Weldon Angelos, a first-time offender, following his conviction at trial on marijuana and firearm charges. In Johns, the defendant appears to merit a greater sentence since he had "numerous prior convictions," was inolved in a large drug distribution scheme involving a "substanal quantity" of crack and a firearm. But Johns' sentence was "capped" at only 4 years because a prosecutor allowed Johns to plead to a lesser offense with 4-year maximum sentence. In order words, though it seems Johns has a worse criminal record and committed a worse offense, Angelos will likely be serving a sentence more than 15 times longer because he did not cut a deal with the prosecutors.

These realities about plea bargaining and prosecutorial power in federal sentencing reinforce points made by Chief US District Judge William Young of the District of Massachusetts in his stuning pre-Blakely decision in US v. Green (details here). Moreover, they must give Justice Breyer serious pause when he considers whether federal sentencing reforms have in fact brought about "greater uniformity between real criminal conduct and real punishment." Breyer Blakely dissent at 19. Justice Breyer's dissent in Blakely highights that he has resisted a trip to "Appprendi-land" because he is concerned that Apprendi and now Blakely auger a world with more plea bargaining and a weak relationship between real conduct and real punishment. See Breyer Blakely dissent at 11. However, the Johns case help document that we already have the sort of federal sentencing world that Justice Breyer apparently fears.

September 17, 2004 at 01:17 AM | Permalink


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The disparities illustrated by the Johns and Angelos cases are shocking. Of course, they have nothing to do with the sentencing guidelines, but are a product of statutory minimums and maximums and the difficult-to-control discretion of prosecutors to choose among the plethora of overlapping criminal provisions in the federal code. There is absolutiely nothing in Blakely that is addressed to any of these problems, and some outcomes of Blakely that could make them much worse. I'm truly amazed how fine legal minds turn sledge-hammer when it comes to reforms of the federal system. Anything that disrupts the system is good, whether it is targeted at a real problem or not. Blakely is a lousy vehicle for attacking mandatory minimum statutes or the discretion of prosecutors. To paraphrase a prosecutor I heard from Washington state who is working on post-Blakely issues: "This decision is great for prosecutors, but if I were a judge I'd hate it."

Cranky student of sentencing reform

Posted by: cranky | Sep 17, 2004 1:25:17 PM

I agree, Cranky, that the Angelos/Johns story is more about statutory minimums and maximums than it is about guidelines per se. But it is also symptomatic of a system which puts so much power in the hands of prosecutors. I am sure it is possible that a post-Blakely world will still give prosecutors lots and lots of power (indeed, I am sure prosecutors always will have lots and lots of power). But, just like giving defendants lawyers can balance the playing field a little, so does giving defendants a jury right and a right to proof BRD.

I would love to go after "the real problem," but academics (and the US Sentencing Commission) have been encouraging the reform of mandatories for a dozen years now and the situation only gets worse. Thus, perhaps we have no choice now but to pull out the sledge-hammer.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 18, 2004 3:27:43 AM

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