In the federal justice system, most criminal sentences are determined by formulas in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines are determined by an agency called the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Sometimes the Sentencing Commission determines that the sentencing guidelines have resulted in unduly long sentences for certain defendants. When that happens, they can change the guidelines to reduce those sentences. Often enough, fairness calls for them to make such changes retroactive so that they apply to people who have already been sentenced.
Should retroactive sentence reductions apply to people who were sentenced by plea agreement? Or should people who pled guilty in exchange for a certain sentence have to live with their bargain? If retroactive sentence reductions don’t apply to people with plea bargains, they could ultimately end up with sentences that are longer than they would have received if they had gone to trial and later petitioned for a reduced sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear two cases involving people who were sentenced after plea bargains. In each case, the Sentencing Commission subsequently reduced the guideline sentences for the crimes they were convicted of. The defendants asked to be resentenced under the new guidelines and were denied.
Those denials came in part because of a 5-4 decision in a 2011 Supreme Court case called Freeman v. U.S. In that case, the high court ruled that retroactive sentencing reductions may apply to people with plea bargains. However, a concurring opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to limit that application to situations in which the plea bargain sentence was explicitly tied to the guideline sentence.
In one case, two defendants bargained for below-average sentences because they had provided substantial assistance to the government. When the guideline sentences for their offenses were later reduced, however, they ended up receiving above-average sentences. The high court will determine whether they should receive lower sentences in the spirit of their bargain or are simply out of luck.
In the other, the defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years. The updated guideline sentence was lower, but his petition for resentencing was turned down. Why? Simply because the sentencing judge had not specifically said the 15 years was a guideline sentence.
These cases could potentially apply to a whole lot of people. That’s because, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 95 percent of federal felony defendants are convicted and sentenced by plea agreement.
Although the Supreme Court, per its custom, did not comment on why it took the cases, the issue seems to be one of simple fairness. If we agree that the sentences were too harsh and should be retroactively reduced, shouldn’t that reduction be applied to everyone affected by the harsh sentences?