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Supreme Court Strikes Down California Sentencing Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's sentencing guidelines Monday, preventing judges from increasing prison time for convicted criminals based on factors not considered by a jury. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal discusses the impact of the decision.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's sentencing guidelines, which had allowed judges the discretion to increase prison time for convicted criminals based on factors not considered by a jury during trial.

    NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal is here to explain the decision and its potential impact.

    And, Marcia, let's begin by reminding people of the facts in this case. Who was the petitioner? And what did he come to the high court to get?

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    OK. John Cunningham was a former police officer. He was convicted of a felony under California law: continuous sexual abuse of a child, his own child.

    After his conviction, California law provides for three levels of sentencing for most felonies. The judge could sentence him to the middle tier of 12 years, but if the judge found mitigating circumstances, he could go down to six years. If the judge found aggravating circumstances, he could go up to 16 years. The sentencing judge found six aggravating factors and sentenced Cunningham to 16 years.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And today's decision, what did the high court decide on Mr. Cunningham's petition?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    The court decided that California's law was unconstitutional. Cunningham had challenged his sentence and the California sentencing system based on a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that have held that, if there are facts supporting an enhanced sentence, a sentence above the statutory maximum for a particular crime, those facts have to be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, not to a judge.

    And that flows, the court has said, from the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And in this case, these were facts the judge was deciding on that were not heard by the jury?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's correct.

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