Injustice is Blind

Federal sentencing in flux.


Last November Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old record company executive with no prior convictions, was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for selling a pound and a half of marijuana to an informant. The federal judge who imposed the sentence, Paul Cassell, urged President Bush to commute it, calling it "unjust, cruel, and irrational."

Such situations, in which a judge feels legally compelled to impose a sentence he considers unfair, could become less common as a result of? the Supreme Court's January decision in U.S. v. Booker, which restored broad sentencing discretion to federal judges. Concluding that federal sentencing guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury because they required sentences to be lengthened based on facts determined by judges, the Court made the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.

But the ruling won't help Angelos. His sentence was determined not by the guidelines but by a law that prescribes heavy penalties for anyone who carries a gun while selling drugs, even if the weapon is never used. The punishment is therefore perfectly constitutional under Booker. Indeed, one possible outcome of the decision is more such mandatory sentences, as tougher-than-thou members of Congress panic at the prospect of penalties determined by judicial whims.?