Extended sentences should be up to judges

A massive wrench has been thrown into the nation’s criminal justice system, and it may be some time before judges, prosecutors and legislators are able to sort out the mess.

Last week, an ideologically mixed majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that our state’s sentencing guidelines, which allow judges to increase the duration of prison time due to aggravating factors, are unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment’s trial-by-jury clause.

Under the ruling, juries are now the ones to decide if the aggravating factors merit a sentence that goes beyond the statutory maximum, and prosecutors must present those aggravating factors during the trial. This jury method is already in use to determine the merits of increased sentences in cases involving deadly weapons, sex crimes and other factors, but now this method must apply to all increases.

This decision opens up more problems in the judicial system than it solves.

The fact is, judges rarely extend sentences beyond the statutory limit. When they do, a jury would most likely agree, as in the case of criminals like Victor David – who imprisoned and brutally abused his disabled wife on a boat for years – and Noreen Erlandson, a nurse who beat her adopted 2-year-old daughter to death in 1991.

Judges have the experience and context to use extended sentences appropriately – they see thousands of cases and have the proper frame of reference to know which criminal deserves a longer sentence and which one doesn’t. Juries are much more likely to see aggravating factors, allow passion and emotion to seep into their deliberations. Plus, pressing a jury into longer service requires more tax dollars.

At the federal level, where judicial appointments are sometimes political, this issue might get more troubling. But in Washington, we elect judges so they can bring their experience and reason to the bench. Washington’s sentencing laws are the product of careful deliberation and 20 years of clarification. Our sentencing system works, and the Supreme Court shouldn’t overturn it on shaky constitutional grounds. Doing so may set free the worst of the worst.

Speaking of the worst, Victor David has appealed under this ruling. Because he served the maximum statutory time, David – and others like him – could soon be back on the streets.

The Legislature should restore the power of extending sentences to our state’s judges in a way that the Supreme Court would approve. It’s a system that wasn’t broken in the first place.

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