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Court orders changes in sentencing

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"We do not doubt that Congress ... intended to create a form of mandatory guidelines system. But, given today's constitutional holding, that is not a choice that remains open," Justice Breyer writes.

He adds, "Ours, of course, is not the last word: The ball now lies in Congress' court. The national legislature is equipped to devise and install, long-term, the sentencing system, compatible with the Constitution, that Congress judges best for the federal system of justice."

Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University, says the splintered nature of the decision may only sow more confusion. "The need to provide clarity for the lower courts took a back seat to the justices' strong beliefs about their own view of the case," Professor Berman says.

One practical effect of the ruling is that prosecutors will probably be forced to return more detailed indictments and to prove, at trial, facts they believe may be relevant at sentencing.

Sentencing guidelines were designed to limit judicial discretion while adding a degree of uniformity to punishments. To make sentences more predictable and proportionate, and to avoid unintended disparities among similarly situated defendants, the guidelines system applied an array of relevant factors to help guide judges toward a narrow sentencing range.

In addition to the core criminal charges, judges were required to consider many other factors such as criminal history, whether the defendant used a firearm, whether any victims were harmed, and whether the defendant admitted guilt and helped authorities prosecute others. Each factor was assigned a numerical value to be plugged into a chart that would reveal an appropriate sentencing range.

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