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Toobin: Ruling may result in wide resentencings

Jeffrey Toobin: Juries will do more work with sentencing.
Supreme Court
Jeffrey Toobin
Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that federal sentencing guidelines, designed to bring uniformity in U.S. courts, are unconstitutional because judges have had improper discretion to add time to defendants' sentences.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin spoke with CNN's Rick Sanchez about the 5-4 ruling, which found juries, not judges, should consider mitigating factors that would increase prison terms.

SANCHEZ: What does this decision mean?

TOOBIN: The federal sentencing guidelines have been in effect since 1986. When I was a federal prosecutor, I dealt with them every day. They are the lifeblood of the federal criminal justice system.

What this decision says today is that many of the people who have been sentenced over the past almost two decades were probably sentenced in an unconstitutional way. And there could be wide resentencings going on.

And looking forward, it is not at all clear how the sentencing guidelines will work in the future. But the gist of it is, judges have to do less and juries have to do more.

SANCHEZ: I remember as a reporter in South Florida 17 years ago when they came out with these sentencing guidelines, they said this is the perfect situation. From now on, everything is going to be uniform. What happened?

TOOBIN: Well, see I mean, it really does make sense. In the old days, before 1986, you had a system where, in the same courthouse, if you drew an easy judge, you might be sentenced to one thing. If you had a tough judge, you might be sentenced to something else, for exactly the same crime. So understandably, they wanted to make a uniform system.

So what they did was they created this system with a point -- it's a point system. Each crime has a certain point level. And you get a certain sentence for that point level.

The problem is the points can be adjusted by a variety of factors. And it's really the judge who makes the determination of where the final point level is.

What the Supreme Court is saying is that if you want to increase those points, it's got to be the jury that makes the decision, not the judge. And that's a big, big change.

SANCHEZ: So what you're saying is the problem lies in the interpretation, which becomes something subjective, right? The judge can -- one judge can see it differently than another judge. We're back to the same problem we had 17, 18 years ago.

TOOBIN: And that's exactly -- that's exactly it -- that, in the desire to create uniformity, they handed too much power to the judge, according to five justices of the Supreme Court.

And now the problem is, how do you undo these problems? Because you have thousands of people being sentenced under this system. Sixty-four thousand people a year are sentenced in federal court. Not all of them will have their sentences changed.

But you can be sure they're going to be a lot of jailhouse lawyers writing letters, saying, "Hey, judge, you did it wrong. Let's get -- let's do this again."

And the Supreme Court seemed to say today -- they don't analyze all of the implications of their decision -- is that some of those prisoners are going to be right and they are entitled to resentencing. So federal judges are going to have, frankly, a nightmare interpreting this and resentencing all the people who are entitled to it.

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