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THE SIXTH AMENDMENT AND SENTENCING GUIDELINES

United States Sentencing Guidelines adopted to make sentences fairer

The United States Sentencing Guidelines were established by the federal Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 in which Congress sought to make sentences fairer and more standardized for similar crimes. Adopted in 1987, the Guidelines are based on a grid system that calculates prison time based on a number of factors that can increase--or decrease--the length of a given sentence. There are statutory limits set for sentences for various crimes. It is estimated that only about three percent of federal cases require sentencing, as most end in plea bargains.

The federal sentencing system allows sentencing judges to increase sentences without a jury determination of the fact or aggravating circumstance that was used to increase or "enhance" the sentence. Civil rights advocates have claimed that this judicial discretion violates a criminal defendant's right to a jury trial.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to a jury trial

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy and public trial, before an impartial jury of his or her peers. Pursuant to this amendment, the criminal defendant has a right to be represented by counsel, to confront or "cross-examine" witnesses against him, and to present witnesses in his favor.

Federal sentencing in turmoil after United States Supreme Court June 2004 ruling

In June 2004, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Washington state sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because a sentencing judge could enhance a sentence based on facts that had never been presented to a jury. In the underlying case, the sentencing judge increased the criminal defendant's sentence based on facts that were never heard by the jury. The Court held that facts often used by a sentencing court to enhance or increase a sentence first had to be proven to a jury in order to guarantee the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury trial. The holding sent shock waves through courts across the nation because the ruling raised many doubts as to the constitutionality of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

Many federal courts found themselves second-guessing sentences handed down after the June decision. Some federal judges began applying new or different methods of sentencing, unsure if and when the Court would decide that the federal Guidelines were similarly invalid.

Majority of the Court later suggests federal Guidelines raise constitutional issues

In October 2004, the Court began its new term by hearing arguments regarding sentencing guidelines. During the oral arguments, a majority of the Court seemed to raise questions regarding the constitutionality of the federal Guidelines. Some commentators have suggested that based on questions asked by the Justices, their ruling may even go beyond the right to a jury trial issue addressed in the June 2004 decision. Some have suggested that the Court could throw out the federal Guidelines entirely. No matter what the Court decides, Congress will likely be the final arbiter of the issue. Some civil rights advocates contend that Congress could replace the current Guidelines with more rigid mandatory sentences.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.