Sentencing Guidelines in Chicago: Struggling for Fairness and Consistency

3scbuulajgg-matthew-hamilton-300x200Knowledge of sentencing guidelines is not only important for those defendants who have been found guilty of a crime in Chicago, but it is also important for those who intend to enter a guilty plea or have a reasonable expectation of being found guilty. The guidelines act like a framework within which the court is expected to operate. They offer guidance to the judge as to the minimum and maximum sentences anticipated depending on the facts of the case. The range can be quite significant, and many offenses lie in the middle. It is for this reason that a sliding scale of punishment has been adopted.

Understanding the Difference Between Potential and Actual Punishments

Unlike some jurisdictions where sentencing is a technical and artificial exercise of matching index points to a punishment scale, Chicago, like the rest of the USA, demands a much more sophisticated approach. This includes weighing up the relative aspects of the aggravating and mitigating features. Two people who have been involved in an identical crime might get significantly different sentences under the guidelines. The public may perceive this to be unfair, but in reality, it is a reflection of the true nature of crime in which the differences are often more important than the similarities.

Some defendants, for example, have long criminal histories that mean a harsh sentence even if the immediate facts of the case would not normally warrant such harsh treatment for their criminal responsibility. Others commit crimes with aggravating features that are only known to the court officers and investigators. For example, a woman who encourages, witnesses, or ignores child abuse may find herself being subjected to some harsh terms of punishment. Likewise, people who abuse their position of trust in order to defraud the public are punished heavily in order to act as a deterrent to other people in similar positions. The most serious crimes such as murder also carry aggravating features that might take them to the most serious punishments available on the penal code.

How Defense Attorneys Negotiate the Sentencing Guidelines

Just like in many other jurisdictions, the role of the attorney is to present the client in the best way possible by persuading the jury about issues of innocence and then persuading the judge about issues of mitigation. This is a sequential process in which guilt is first established. It is professional malpractice to force a client to plead guilty to a crime that he or she has not committed without giving him or her a chance to make an informed decision. Public defenders in particular have acquired a negative perception of being negligent in their pursuit of the defendant’s rights.

There are cases in which the sentencing guidelines have been accused of distorting the law. A case in point is the use of minimum sentencing guidelines in some states that ensure that non-violent offenders end up with life sentences. The federal administration under the Barack Obama regime tried to rectify this problem using pardons, but there is still room for reform. Chicago is one of the states that is known for harsh sentencing for violent crime but is also at the heart of the reform agenda.

Moves Towards Fairer Sentencing

The right to a fair trial is paramount. It is the responsibility of all the court officers, regardless of whether they are on the prosecuting or defending team. For obvious reasons, the prosecutor will emphasize the aggravating features, while the defending team will emphasize the mitigating features of the case. From that balancing act, the court can extract a fair sentencing regime that reflects the gravity of the crime and its impact on the public. For help navigating sentencing guidelines in Chicago, reach out to contact David Freidberg, attorney at law at (312) 560-7100.

(image courtesy of Matthew Hamilton)