weather icon Clear

EDITORIAL: Acquitted of the crime, but still does the time

Students are taught in civics class that, under the American justice system, a defendant may be convicted of a crime only if a jury finds him or her guilty of the charged offense “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What’s rarely mentioned, however, is that federal law allows judges to ignore a not guilty verdict and sentence men and women to prison for illegal activity of which they were acquitted.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes policies and practices for the federal courts, took a giant step toward ending this noxious practice — and the move is long overdue.

Known as “acquitted conduct sentencing,” it has been federal policy for four decades. The concept gives federal judges the go-ahead to consider behavior for which the accused was found not guilty when sentencing that same defendant for crimes of which he was convicted.

For instance, one high-profile case involved a teenager who was convicted of robbing an Indiana pharmacy but also found not guilty by a jury of killing one of his partners in crime. He received an enhanced sentence of nearly 20 years in prison because the judge determined, despite the jury verdict, that the teen was more likely than not to have been responsible for the death of his confederate.

Various Supreme Court justices have looked askance at the practice for four decades, questioning whether it violates due process rights or the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial. In recent years, however, the court turned away challenges to the practice, with some justices explaining they wanted to defer to the sentencing commission. This week, the panel unanimously voted to amend the rules to prohibit federal judges from basing sentences on acquitted conduct.

“Not guilty means not guilty,” said U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who chairs the federal commission. “By enshrining this basic fact within the federal sentencing guidelines, the commission is taking an important step to protect the credibility of our courts and criminal justice system.”

The issue now goes to Congress, which has never taken up the matter despite the introduction of several bipartisan legislative proposals that would have ended the practice. The commission will deliver the proposed changes to Capitol Hill on May 1, and the House and Senate then have six months to “modify or disapprove” the reforms. If Congress fails to act by Nov. 1, the changes become law.

The use of acquitted conduct in criminal sentencing is antithetical to the Bill of Rights and incompatible with the cherished concept of a trial by jury. Congress should allow the commission’s reforms to become federal policy.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
EDITORIAL: UNLV president needs to step up

UNLV administrators have tolerated a culture of intimidation and fright against Jewish students that comes dangerously close to antisemitism.

EDITORIAL: A retail theft conspiracy?

Many on the left accuse greedy capitalists at major outlets of exaggerating the problem to cover up mismanagement.