According to an Associated Press report, the overwhelming majority of sentences imposed since that decision - 86 percent - continue to fall within the range set out in the guidelines or were proposed by prosecutors to reward defendants' cooperation and other factors. At the same time, statistics compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission indicate there has been an increase in the percentage of shorter sentences imposed by judges who were exercising their newfound discretion.
Congress created the guidelines in the 1980s mainly to reduce disparities between judges. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court said making the guidelines mandatory violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because they call for judges to make factual decisions that could add to prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, the guidelines now are only advisory. As a result, federal judges are free to sentence convicted criminals as they see fit, but they may be subject to reversal if appeals courts find them "unreasonable."
To underscore his point, Gonzales cited a South Carolina case where a man pleaded guilty to federal weapons and drug-trafficking charge. Under the decades-old federal guidelines, the man would have faced up to 27 years in prison. Instead, the judge, who offered no explanation, sentenced the man to 10 years in prison - a sentence that is being appealed by the government.
Gonzales said that making the bottom range of the 1980s-vintage guidelines mandatory but leaving the guidelines' upper limit advisory would resolve the Supreme Court's concern.
We think the Supreme Court got it right: Federal judges should be free to sentence convicted criminals as they see fit, and they should be subject to reversal if appeals courts find them unreasonable. Sentences should fit the crime, not a politician's preconceived, one-size-fits-all notion.