Editorial: Ruling opens door to get sentencing right

The Detroit News

Michigan policymakers should view the Supreme Court ruling striking down the state’s criminal sentencing guidelines as a gift. Putting in place a rational sentencing structure that balances the need to protect the public against the cost of incarceration is essential, and this decision by the state’s high court provides both the impetus and the opportunity to get it right.

In their 5-2 ruling, the justices found that Michigan’s sentencing guidelines are out of sync with a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision. Specifically, the court ruled the practice of adding to a convict’s sentence based on a menu of extenuating factors violates the Constitution, because those circumstances were either not admitted by the defendant or found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury.

So for the moment, judges in Michigan are without firm guidelines in handing down punishment. And defendants found guilty since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling since at least 2013, and perhaps earlier, may be eligible for rehearings of their sentences.

That will create some momentary chaos in local courts, as a flood of rehearings must be scheduled, and cause headaches for the Court of Appeals, which will be asked to determine which sentences are in violation of the high court’s ruling.

But in the end, it’s a positive development for Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing the criminal justice system with the goal of both trimming the $2 billion-a-year Corrections budget and making sure the criminal sentences work to deter crime and rehabilitate the criminal.

It’s a must-do initiative.

One in five general fund dollars goes to Corrections. Michigan locks up more people than any of its neighboring states, and keeps them behind bars longer. It is now routine to keep convicts in prison beyond their minimum sentence. And yet Michigan still has a high recidivism rate.

Clearly, the answer to lowering crime rates is not to simply lock up criminals and throw away the key.

The law the state Supreme Court struck down permitted judges to tack on time to sentences in an indeterminate fashion. For example, a judge could add time for psychological damage to the victim, or if the victim was moved from one place to another, or if a victim’s physical disability or age was exploited.

Adding in those so-called offense variables tended to lead to longer sentences, and, as the court ruled, are extremely subjective.

A reformed policy that meets the constitutional test will construct sentencing guidelines that are advisory only, except in the case of prior convictions. Judges won’t be able to modify minimum and maximum sentences based on circumstances not determined conclusively by the jury or admitted to by the defendant.

Judges should have room to deviate from hard sentencing guidelines to best serve the needs of the public and craft the most sensible punishment for the defendant. But when they do, as the court advises, an appellate court should review the deviation to make sure it is constitutional.

While the primary consideration is always public safety, society reaps no benefit from keeping inmates locked up longer than necessary to deter them from future bad behavior and deliver adequate justice to their victims.

Snyder is well out in front of this issue, so there’s no need for the court’s ruling to throw the legal system into turmoil. But it should prod the Legislature to make his sentencing reform agenda a more urgent priority.