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Federal sentencing guidelines, whose mandatory authority was struck down by the Supreme Court just over a year ago in U.S. v. Booker, have never held that much interest for the public. So perhaps it was inevitable that at a news conference last week to mark the publication of a massive report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Booker‘s impact, House Republicans chose to focus on the study’s most attention-grabbing aspect: sex offenders. Florida Republican Tom Feeney invoked Cicero — “Let the punishment fit the crime” — in declaring sexual offenses against minors “the most hiatus [sic] crimes.” (It was assumed by those in attendance that Feeney meant “heinous.”) Booker turned what had been mandatory guidelines into merely advisory ones. Some prophesied that without a forced check on judicial discretion, liberal judges might run amok. In fact, noted the commission’s report, average sentence lengths since Booker rose from 57 to 58 months. That did nothing to mollify Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He proclaimed that the “report is in, and the picture is not pretty.” The problem: Federal judges, citing Booker, handed out lighter sentences in sex offender cases more often after the decision than they did before. Indeed, according to a chart prepared by GOP committee staff, the number of instances in which a judge meted out punishment below the guidelines in cases involving the sexual abuse of a minor soared by 600 percent. Sounds pretty bad. That is, until you consider that the statistic rests on comparing two cases in the year before Booker was decided to 12 cases the year after. That’s out of roughly 69,000 federal criminal cases decided since Booker was handed down. And in all of the abuse cases cited, the defendant had little or no criminal history. “The suggestion that we’re just in chaos hasn’t been found,” said Virginia’s Bobby Scott, the top ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary’s crime subcommittee, which held a hearing on the report on March 16. Present at the hearing: six out of the committee’s 40 members.
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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