Numerous inmates’ sentences overturned after high court ruling on prison terms
DENVER – Up to 20 Colorado inmates have succeeded in getting their sentences overturned in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that limited judges’ power to hand down tough punishments.Judges are confused, prosecutors are frustrated and legislators are scrambling to pass a law to clear up the uncertainty.”It’s imperative that we act now,” said Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.The U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case from Washington state, said it is unconstitutional for a judge, rather than a jury, to make conclusions that lead to a sentence longer than the standard minimum.There is no way to determine how many Colorado inmates’ sentences could be affected by the ruling, said state Public Defender David Kaplan.Colorado law allows judges to order longer sentences if they feel the facts of a case justify it, even if a jury didn’t determine those facts had been proved. The law establishes an “aggravated range,” from half of the minimum to twice the maximum standard term, depending on the nature of the crime, the defendant’s history and other factors.The state Court of Appeals has said the Colorado statute is “not different in any constitutionally significant way from the Washington scheme.” It said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows longer sentences only if a jury decides that the facts justifying an “aggravated” sentence were proved.At least two dozen Colorado inmates have asked the Court of Appeals to review their sentences since the federal ruling, and the inmates have won in up to 20 of those cases, including five in the past two weeks, said interim state Solicitor General John Krause.In the overturned cases, the trial judges had ordered prison terms longer than the standard sentences.The attorney general’s office has appealed to the state Supreme Court, seeking to uphold the longer terms and keep the state’s sentencing scheme in place. The high court heard arguments in one of those cases in March. The ruling, which has not yet been handed down, may settle the issue.”I think to the extent (the Supreme Court justices) are aware there are a number of people serving sentences longer than are constitutionally appropriate, they’ll want to make a decision sooner rather than later,” Kaplan said.Grossman said the Legislature needs to act quickly because since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state judges are barring prosecutors from presenting evidence that could justify a harsher sentence.He said his bill is a short-term fix while a team of prosecutors and defense lawyers work on a sentencing-reform plan for lawmakers next year.The measure would allow judges to impose a sentence anywhere within the broader aggravated range as long as they explain their decision.Grossman’s bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.Kaplan said Grossman’s bill was premature.”Why legislate before you understand what the constitutional interpretation’s going to be?” he said. “It’s a little bit of the cart in front of the horse” until the state Supreme Court issues a ruling.
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