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Landmark Decision Reverses Course For Michigan’s Sentencing Guidelines in Criminal Felony and High Misdemeanor Cases

Daniel Williams, Esq.

On Wednesday, the Court issued an opinion in People v. Lockridge, a link to which is attached above, which dismantles the way that convicted felons in Michigan have been sentenced since the “truth in sentencing” laws went into effect on January 1, 1999. The legislature enacted mandatory sentencing guidelines, which amount to a scoring equation, and based on the offender’s prior criminal record and the facts and circumstances of the case, a mandatory minimum sentence could be determined.

The sentencing Court was bound by that number, unless they could come up with “substantial and compelling reasons” to depart, either above (more time) or below (less time) than what the mandatory sentence under the guidelines scoring required.  The Court defined what substantial and compelling reasons meant in People v. Babcock, indicating that the Court could only depart upward or downward where evidence not taken into account by the sentencing guidelines was available to the Court.

The sentencing guidelines, however, could be scored based on the lower threshold of a preponderance of the evidence, and it was not required that the Defendant be found guilty of the offense for the sentencing guidelines to apply. 

In Lockridge, the Court has done away with all of that.  The sentencing guidelines are still in effect, but now they are advisory, where the Judge can use them as a guide, but he or she is not mandated to impose a minimum sentence within that range.  Nor can the guidelines be scored using a preponderance of the evidence standard.

The Michigan Supreme Court has brought Michigan’s sentencing scheme in line with that used by the Federal Courts.   In Lockridge, the Court made clear that based on rulings from the United States Supreme Court, the notion that facts could be used in sentencing that had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt was a violation of a Defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to a Fair Trial.  Furthermore, rather than needing a substantial and compelling reason to depart from the guidelines, a sentencing Court’s determinations will be reviewed by an appellate court only for a determination that the sentence imposed was reasonable. 

The result is that the Court has now returned Michigan to an age where judicial discretion is the norm for criminal sentencings.  The results are both positive and negative for convicted offenders.  While judicial discretion in the imposition of sentences means that a Court can look at the individual circumstances of each case and make individualized, Defendant specific sentencing determinations, there are some draw backs.

Advising clients as to what the possible sentence for a crime is going to be is a far easier task when the sentence is mandated by the sentencing guidelines.  The minimum score is determined by the guidelines calculation, unless the case was particularly egregious.  Now, there are a lot more variables in determining what an appropriate sentence might be, and what factors will ultimately be considered by the Court in trying to fashion an appropriate sentence.

Frankly, the Lockridge opinion makes having a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney all that much more important.  Only time will tell if this return to an age of widespread judicial discretion provides a better sentencing scheme, or provides a system of inequity similar to what led to the creation of the sentencing guidelines in the first place.

When judicial discretion is the norm, having an attorney who is familiar with the system, and has experience with how Judges will handle a criminal defendant who is being sentenced before them can be invaluable.  As a former assistant prosecuting attorney, Dan Williams is very familiar with the criminal justice system, criminal procedure, and with the Judges who preside on Wayne County’s Criminal Bench.  If you have found yourself on the wrong side of the law, give us a call to see about taking your case on today.

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