If you plead guilty in exchange for a plea bargain, what happens if the customary sentence changes? When guideline sentences are reduced, defendants are sometimes allowed to ask for the new, lower sentence. Is there a reason why people sentenced after plea bargains should be denied that right?
In the federal system, many sentences are determined by formulas listed in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines are developed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. When the Commission determines that the guideline sentences are too harsh, it sometimes changes the guidelines. When that happens, fairness sometimes requires the changes to be applied retroactively to people who were sentenced before the change.
In a case called Freeman v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these retroactive sentence reductions may apply to defendants who entered into plea agreements. Unfortunately, it did not specify when. Moreover, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion in which she stated that plea bargain defendants were only eligible for retroactive sentence reductions when their plea bargains were expressly tied to the sentencing guidelines.
This has led to a deal of confusion, especially because over 95 percent of federal felony defendants plead guilty, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The Supreme Court has just agreed to hear two cases that could clarify the issue. In each case, the defendants’ sentences were set by plea bargain. In each case, the guideline sentence was later reduced by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
In one case, the two defendants provided substantial assistance to the government. In exchange, they were given sentences that were below the original guideline sentence but higher than the sentence later recommended by the Commission. Refusing to reduce their sentences seems to deny them the benefit of their willingness to help the government.
In the other, the defendant was denied a reduction in his sentence because his original sentence was not explicitly determined by using the guidelines.
When guideline sentences are lowered, isn’t the government saying that the previous sentences were too harsh? If those sentences were too harsh, shouldn’t the government reduce them?