Judges Declares Sentencing Law Unconstitutional
Sep. 23, 1989
PEORIA, Ill. (AP) _ A federal judge has struck down a portion of federal sentencing law as unconstitutional, saying Congress gave prosecutors too much - and judges too little - authority to decide prison sentences.
U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm acted in a case involving a woman who cooperated with the government and gave key testimony in a drug case. The prosecution did not recommend a reduced sentence for this cooperation and the 1987 law gave the judge no option but to impose the full sentence.
Since Congress granted only federal prosecutors the power to request a sentence reduction, Mihm said Thursday, the executive branch of government has more authority in sentencing than the judiciary and that imbalance must be corrected.
The sentencing guidelines were enacted to ensure uniform sentencing among judges nationwide so that all criminals are treated fairly no matter what part of the country they are in.
U.S. Attorney William Roberts said the decision is still being reviewed, and no decision has been made on an appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
''It's been a very strong tool for effecting cooperation,'' Roberts said. ''It's certainly my sense that that's exactly the way Congress intended it to be used.''
Mihm said Congress violated the separation of power doctrine.
If the government lets the decision stand, it will apply only in Mihm's courtroom unless other judges around the country follow his lead. If the government appeals and loses again, Mihm's ruling would be the law in the entire 7th Circuit, which includes all of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Mihm acted at the request of attorney Richard Parsons, who was representing a woman sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of cocaine conspiracy charges.
Parsons argued his client, Kim Curran, 26, should get a reduced sentence based on her cooperation in convicting two other drug dealers.
''This 'girl' helped the government a great deal, at a great personal risk, and her cooperation resulted in the conviction of a drug kingpin in central Illinois,'' Parsons said. ''But Congress said the judge can't consider that in sentencing unless the prosecution agrees. That power should be equally shared by the prosecution and the judiciary.''
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tate Chambers said he was unable to recommend a reduced sentence because Ms. Curran had not gone under cover to help convict Charles ''Blackie'' Spears or Donald Meeks on drug dealing charges, as required by regional policy.
FBI agent Robert Norton told the court Ms. Curran probably placed herself and her family in jeopardy by cooperating completely with the prosecution.
''There's no question that (Curran's testimony) was a significant factor in the Donald Meeks trial,'' Mihm said, adding that the 17-year prison term given to Spears ''would have been considerably less'' without her cooperation.
He said those facts should have been considered by the prosecutors and warranted a reduced sentence.