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Court strikes down part of state’s sentencing law

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state Supreme Court struck down Wednesday part of Michigan’s sentencing law and gave judges more discretion in imposing prison sentences on convicted criminals.

A dissenting justice warned the decision would disrupt the court system and create less public certainty about criminal penalties.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court found that the criminal sentencing policies that state judges have followed for 16 years violated the U.S Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial based on a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The finding applies to the way minimum sentences are determined. It also said judges, in setting sentences, may take into consideration only facts admitted by the defendant or found by the jury.

As a result of the ruling, Michigan judges now must treat the state’s 1998 sentencing guidelines as advisory rather than mandatory, according to the majority opinion written by Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. The decision applies to current and future felony cases.

“Because Michigan’s sentencing guidelines scheme allows judges to find by a preponderance of the evidence facts that are then used to compel an increase in the mandatory minimum punishment a defendant receives, it violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” McCormack wrote. “To remedy the constitutional flaw in the guidelines, we hold that they are advisory only.”

In another decision released Wednesday, the state’s high court ruled 4-3 that about 35,000 state employees should have never been subject to paying union fees, giving supporters of the state’s 2013 right-to-work law a major victory. The court also said the state was within its rights in requiring 15,000 workers to chip into their pensions.

The sentencing decision stirred debate about its probable effect. An attorney involved in the case said the ruling likely would make it harder to impose harsh sentences exceeding the state guidelines.

“The result will be that judges’ discretion won’t be constrained by the (state sentencing) guidelines,” said attorney Brett DeGroff of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit who handled the appeal of the criminal case that led to the decision.

“Regardless of whether some folks will end up with longer sentences and some folks will end up with shorter sentences, the right to a jury trial will be vindicated and upheld,” he said.

But Justice Stephen Markman, writing the dissent, predicted the decision will have a chaotic effect on the court system because it will lead to sentencing variations and create less certainty for the public about how much time criminals will spend in prison.

“This pursuit of sentencing uniformity and consistency as the lodestar of our justice system has now given way to a rule of deference to the widely disparate judgments of 586 judges,” Markman wrote, comparing the current sentencing policies to his forecast for the new ruling.

Livingston County Prosecutor William Vailliencourt agreed the ruling will lead to wider disparity in sentences handed out by judges, but said he believes the legal system will adjust after some initial difficulty.

Vailliencourt, a Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan board member, said judges still are free to base sentences on the state guidelines and most probably will continue to so. But they also have leeway to depart from the guidelines.

“This is much more deferential to the trial court,” he said. “Essentially, we’re going back to a sentencing structure that we had before the guidelines. The Supreme Court had a sentencing scheme but it was advisory only.”

DeGroff said the ruling will affect new cases and those pending in the court system. It won’t apply to cases that have been appealed to the Supreme Court and decided, he said.

It comes as lawmakers are considering changes in Michigan sentencing guidelines, parole and probation policies to tamp down the $2 billion-a-year state corrections budget. The ultimate goal of the proposals would be to reduce a prison population of about 43,000.

“If that’s what the constitution says, we’ll just have to deal with it,” Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, who heads the Michigan Law Review Commission, said of the decision. “We oversentence too many people, and we’ve got to do something about it.”

Wednesday’s ruling stems from the 8- to-15-year prison sentence a judge gave an Oakland County resident, Rahim Lockridge, after a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2011 fatal strangulation of his wife.

Court documents state the couple had a history of marital discord and sometimes were separated by one of their kids. The children witnessed the incident that resulted in the strangulation death of Kenyatta Lockbridge, records indicate.

At the time of her death, court records say, Rahim Lockbridge was living with the victim in violation of a no-contact court order that resulted from earlier incidents.

Judge Nanci Grant cited such factors as past violent incidents and trauma to the couple’s children for raising the minimum sentence by 10 months.

The factors are listed in court documents as life-threatening injury to the victim; serious psychological injury to the victim’s family members; acting with gross negligence; two to nine persons placed in danger of physical injury; and exploitation of a vulnerable victim.

But Lockridge’s attorneys argued that Grant “abused (her) discretion by imposing a 10-month upward departure from the sentencing guidelines,” according to the court’s synopsis.

His appeal also argued that sentence was “scored” under state guidelines using factors “not admitted or proven to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, in violation of a 2013 United States Supreme Court opinion,” according to the court summary.

Justices McCormack, Robert Young Jr., Mary Beth Kelly, David Viviano and Richard Bernstein agreed with the argument but they declined to change Lockridge’s sentence.

Markman and Justice Brian Zahra dissented, saying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling isn’t applicable to states like Michigan, where sentencing rules allow for “indeterminate” minimum sentences.

In his opinion, Markman argued that judges in Michigan’s indeterminate sentencing system “cannot infringe upon the authority of the jury.”

Until now, judges have determined minimum sentences by scoring for various factors including use of weapons and prior offenses. Maximum sentences are set by state law.

The judge’s minimum sentence and sentencing range could consider factors uncovered by police that weren’t included in a trial but later may have been argued by a prosecutor and defense attorney in front of a judge.

Defense attorneys have argued only factors presented during the trial — which theoretically could be considered by the jury in its verdict — should be applied to the sentence.

As a result of the ruling, judges now may sentence outside the state guidelines but still must refer to them and explain the sentences they hand out, DeGroff said. The sentences and the reasons behind them will be subject to review by higher courts.