Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down that part of the state’s sentencing guidelines that requires judges to use facts not given to the jury to set mandatory minimum sentences. It’s a decision that could fundamentally change how criminal law works in Michigan.
In response to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case, the Michigan Supreme Court just decided that the state’s sentencing guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Here’s how it worked.
Michigan Sentencing Guidelines
Until last Wednesday, after a defendant pleaded guilty or was found guilty by a jury, he or she would be investigated by the the Probation department, who would present a Pre-Sentencing Investigation Report to the judge. This report would include “offense variables” that described the aggravating or mitigating factors of the defendant’s actions, including the impact on the victim, number of victims, the use of dangerous weapons, and others. These offense variables are assigned values. When all the points are added together, they determine a minimum sentence range that the judge must use unless they find a compelling reason not to.
Minimum Sentence Deviations
A judge is allowed to deviate (increase or decrease) a minimum sentence from the range given by the guidelines. But to do this, the judge has to describe “substantial and compelling reasons” not adequately accounted for in the sentencing guidelines.
In the case considered by the Michigan Supreme Court, the defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after he strangled his wife in front of their children and left her body in the house with them. The trial judge said that this behavior, and the harm it caused to the children, were not given adequate weight in the formula, so she gave the defendant a higher than recommended sentence.
The Michigan Supreme Court considered the sentencing guidelines and the explanation for the deviation. There have been many other cases where a judge’s reasoning was determined insufficient, but this time it wasn’t the judge’s decision, but the sentencing guideline itself that was the problem.
Because the sentencing guidelines are based on facts that never came before the jury and were not admitted by the defendant, the court said they violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. By requiring courts to increase sentences based on “judicial fact-finding,” the mandatory minimum sentencing range violated the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013.
READ THE FULL OPINION HERE: People v Lockridge
Michigan Sentencing Going Forward
To solve the problem, the court eliminated the mandatory nature of the guidelines and made them “advisory.” While courts are still required to calculate the sentencing guideline range and consider it in imposing a sentence, judges are no longer required to impose the mandatory minimum sentences set by the statute.
One thing the court’s opinion made clear is that criminal defense attorneys are going to have to be on top of their game when it comes to objecting to the guidelines and the sentences. The Supreme Court struck down the mandatory sentencing guidelines but ruled that the judge’s sentence in this case could still stand. Going forward, criminal lawyers will need to be ready to object to the information used in the pre-sentence investigation report when it includes out-of-court information.
They also need to be prepared to object to the judge’s sentence if it seems unreasonable. The Supreme Court instructed appeals courts to review judges’ sentences for reasonableness. But to get a case before the court on this issue, trial attorneys need to make their objections at the time of sentence.
Last week’s Michigan Supreme Court decision opened the sentencing guidelines to judicial discretion and did away with mandatory minimum sentencing ranges. This is a game-changer for Michigan criminal law. It will be up to criminal defense attorneys to make sure it is a change for the better and to protect the constitutional rights of their clients.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a criminal defense attorney at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She handles everything from traffic misdemeanors to criminal sexual conduct. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.