Courts

Judges: Absolute Power or Tied Hands?

One of the most important roles a Judge plays in a criminal case is sentencing a convicted defendant.  In most cases, even when both parties agree on a sentence, the Judge has an extreme amount of latitude in making his or her ruling.  For example, someone convicted of a first degree felony will stand before a Judge who could sentence the defendant anywhere between 0 days in jail and up to life in prison.  Prior to the Judge handing down the sentence, the defendant will be heard, victims may be heard, both attorneys will be heard and often times a probation agency will be heard.  The Judge takes all of this information, weighs the interest of justice and hands down what they feel is most appropriate sentence given the specific circumstances of the case, victim and the defendant.  The only requirement for the Judge is to stay within the legal guidelines of the degree of crime, in this case 0 to life in prison.

However, there are a handful of crimes that the Utah Legislature has taken this kind of latitude away from Judges, meaning if convicted of these crimes, the same parties will be heard, but it will not make a significant difference in what the Judge can do.  Most of these are very egregious crimes.  For example, a person guilty of aggravated murder (a first degree felony) shall be sentenced to either life in prison without parole or 25 years to life in prison. The only decision the Judge will make at the sentencing hearing is which of those two options, in their opinion, fit the crime.  This of course is different if the State is seeking the death penalty.

Aggravated sexual assault, sexual abuse of a child and aggravated sexual abuse of a child also have mandatory requirements the Judge shall comply with.  In these cases, a judge can only sentence a convicted defendant to either life in prison without parole or a minimum of 6, 10 or 15 years in prison.

Judges’ authority to listen to the specifics of a case and sentence either very leniently or harshly is extremely important in our legal system as no two cases, defendants and victims are the same.  Interestingly enough, the Utah Legislature has only taken this leeway away in very serious and damaging crimes, with the exception of one: driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI).  In these convictions, the Legislature requires specific sentences depending on the amount of prior DUIs the defendant has.  DUIs are punished at the lowest level as a class B misdemeanor and at the highest level (if there is no accident) as a third degree felony.  With those convictions come mandatory treatment and mandatory hours of jail, community service or monitored home confinement.  The least egregious DUI, perhaps not driving but sleeping it off in a vehicle, still requires the Judge to sentence the minimum 48 hours of jail, community service or monitored home confinement; this assuming it is a first DUI within 10 years.

Clearly, the legislature has chosen a few crimes it feels are important to rule on from the grand hill on State street, rather than in the court room.  The question is, why these ones and is it more just?

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