On July 29, 2015 in People v. Lockridge, No. 149073, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that Michigan’s sentencing guidelines violate a defendant’s sixth amendment fundamental right to jury trial, and that judges should use them only in an advisory capacity.
Lockridge was charged with first-degree murder but a jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. His variable score (a score to calculate the sentencing guidelines) resulted in the minimum sentencing range of 43-86 months. However, the sentencing judge imposed a minimum sentence of 96 months, 10 months more than the minimum sentencing guidelines required. The court increased the minimum due to the violence of the assault, a determination based on facts that were not found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Michigan’s guidelines set a baseline for minimum sentences based off a defendant’s admissions and prior convictions, then, additional time may be added due to aggravating factors (such as possessing a gun). The factors can be determined based on the facts found by the judge rather than by the jury. This procedure compels sentencing judges to impose greater mandatory minimum sentences based on facts not admitted by the defendant or found by the jury verdict. The Michigan Supreme Court found that this procedure violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.
To remedy the sixth amendment violation, the Court concluded that the sentencing guidelines are advisory only, although sentencing courts must take into account the guideline range when imposing a sentence. In addition, the court struck down the requirement that a sentencing court that departs from the applicable guidelines range must articulate a substantial and compelling reason for the departure.
For example, in Livingston County, a sentencing judge has already applied the new rule. The court sentenced a defendant to two years to four years in prison for possessing more than 1,800 images and videos of child pornography rather than the zero months to nine months in county jail as suggested by the sentencing guidelines.
Although this does allow the sentencing courts to depart freely up or down from the guidelines, the mandatory minimums and maximums allow consistency in sentencing guidelines. It allows similarly situated defendants to be sentenced reasonably similar. Discretion allows similarly situated defendants to have drastically different sentences based on the opinions and discretion of the judge they are before.
This new rule would allow for judges to depart down from the guidelines as well, particularly for non-violent crimes and other low-level offenders. Sen. Partick Leahy, from Vermont, along with other proponents of criminal justice reform believe that discretion is key because it allows prosecutors and judges to take into account the individual circumstances involved in a case. When a judge has discretion to impose a sentence regardless of whether it’s a departure from the guidelines allow some judges to give higher sentences and some lower, as long as they are reasonable.
The argument supporting the new ruling is one that focuses on the disparity between cases of the same general nature. By extension, judges must be able to make the punishment best fit the crime. What the argument fails to acknowledge is this: it is not the judge who is tasked with delivering justice, it is the jury. Providing judges with such an excessive amount of latitude when it comes to imposing minimum and maximum sentences upon the jury’s decision creates an imbalance of power that places the offending public at the mercy of a solitary individual, with a solitary perspective. By having a set of concrete minimum and maximum sentences, we protect the defendant from the personal bias of the judge and encourage uniformity (to the greatest extent the current system can). Most importantly, we ensure that justice is served by the defendant’s peers, along with the variety of perspectives that most effectively evaluate the array of facts surrounding the case.