Lockridge is a Game Changer for Sentencing in Michigan

by: Matt Newburg

08/02/2015 07:55 PM EST
Tags:
  criminal law  
  sentencing  

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 The Michigan Supreme Court has changed the way criminal defendants will be sentenced in a dramatic fashion. As a criminal defense lawyer, I have had the fortune of traveling around the state on a number of criminal cases.  Some are high profile and others are not. Regardless, I knew one thing: if my client was convicted or pled to a felony, seeking a downward departure from the mandatory sentencing guidelines was going to be the primary challenge.  The Michigan sentencing guidelines set forth a complicated way for criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges to determine the minimum sentence a client could serve in prison before being eligible for parole. The Michigan Supreme Court has now changed that by finding the mandatory nature of the guidelines were unconstitutional.

Now, the Michigan sentencing guidelines are advisory and no longer are mandatory. Citing a recently decided U.S. Supreme Court case, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed, in a 5-2 decision, saying the state’s sentencing guidelines were an unconstitutional restraint on judicial discretion. The justices did, however, uphold Lockridge’s sentence of 8-15 years.  The Court said the mandatory nature of the guidelines created an unconstitutional restraint on the sentencing judge's discretion.  I welcome the change and commend the Court for issuing an opinion that reflects the law and restores one of the primary functions of our Judiciary.

Defense lawyers should be able to advocate for their client at sentencing without the restraint of arbitrary numbers that do not take into account aspects of the individual client that may warrant a shorter sentence. In fashioning a sentence, under Lockridge, the court cannot consider facts that were not admitted to by the defendant at the time of a plea or, facts that were not proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  This new standard reflects the constitutional rights reserved for defendants and that standard should not change at the time of sentencing.

The advisory role of the sentencing guidelines is not new. Prior to the imposition of the mandatory structure of the guidelines, they were advisory to the sentencing judge. Now, because of Lockridge, the sentencing judge must score the guidelines but does not need to provide any reason if the judge chooses to impose a sentence either above or below the guideline range.  The impact that Lockridge will have is unknown but as a criminal defense attorney, I welcome the change and look forward to playing an integral part in the change Lockridge presents.

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