Ruling may slow justice system

January 26, 2007 11:00 pm

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

The Del Norte County Superior Court might see some familiar faces back in the courtroom due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down California's criminal sentencing law.

The law violates defendants' Sixth Amendment rights to a jury trial, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

This decision might slow the already back-logged justice system by forcing courts to hand down new sentences to thousands of convicts.

"We're struggling with overcrowded, congested courts now, and this isn't going to help." said Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese.

California has a three-tier system for sentencing in which judges choose whether to hand out the minimum, medium or maximum sentence. Judges tend to give the medium sentence unless there are outside factors that would merit a harsher or lighter sentence.

For instance, if a defendant has an extensive criminal history or preyed upon the vulnerability of a victim (such as a child) the judge might decide to give the more severe sentence.

"Those sentences are now put in jeopardy," Riese said.

According to the Supreme Court's ruling, a jury – not a judge – should determine aggravating or mitigating factors that might increase or decrease detention time. Each time a judge previously handed down a maximum sentence is now considered unconstitutional and subject to a new hearing.

This will make cases more time-consuming for both the courts and the jurors, Reise said. "It isn't going to benefit the efficiency of the system at all."

However, California State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, is introducing a bill that will allow judges to pick from the range of sentencing options.

The bill, SB 40, states: "...Existing law requires the court to impose the middle term, unless there are circumstances in mitigation or aggravation of the crime. This bill would instead provide that the choice of the appropriate term would rest within the sound discretion of the court..."

If the bill is passed, a judge would not be required to start at the middle sentence and move toward a lighter or heavier sentence based on outside factors.

Rather, the outside variables would initially be admitted as evidence in the sentencing trial and the judge would have the range of all three sentencing options.

The source of the Supreme Court's ruling comes from a man convicted in 2003 for sexual assault of a child under 14.

Bay Area police officer John Cunningham was sentenced to 16 years for sexually abusing his 10-year-old son.

Cunningham did not have a previous record, but the judge imposed the maximum sentence because he found other aggravating factors, including the viciousness of the acts and the vulnerability of the victim.

Cunningham appealed the maximum term, arguing that the judge used facts that were not determined by a jury, hence a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.

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Unconstitutional Sentencing Law

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the California sentencing law on Monday. That law required a judge to:

-Pick a lower, middle or maximum sentence for a convicted person. Generally a judge will pick the middle sentence, unless there are outside factors affecting judgement.

-Select the lower sentence if there are mitigated factors, such as no previous criminal history.

-Choose the maximum sentence if there are aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal history.