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Sentencing Panel Urges Curbs On Penalties For 'Acquitted Conduct'

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has proposed curtailing the ability of judges to impose longer sentences on criminal defendants based on conduct for which they were acquitted at trial, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court also may address, according to Reuters. The bipartisan commission voted unanimously to publish a proposed amendment to federal sentencing guidelines that would limit judges in considering a defendant's "acquitted conduct." The vote on Thursday came a day before U.S. Supreme Court justices were scheduled to meet privately to consider hearing four different appeals by criminal defendants urging them to end this common judicial practice. It was one of a slew of proposed amendments the panel put forward including one of its top priorities, implementing the First Step Act and, in the process, clarifying when defendants are eligible for compassionate release from incarceration.

The panel lost its quorum - a sufficient membership to allow it to craft policy - a month after President Trump in 2018 signed the First Step Act, legislation aimed at easing harsh sentencing for nonviolent offenders and reducing recidivism. The Senate in August confirmed seven new commission members nominated by President Biden, giving the panel little time to work before a May 1 deadline to submit any guidelines amendments to Congress. The Supreme Court in 1997 held that a jury's verdict of acquittal does not prevent a judge at sentencing from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge. Judges may do so because while juries must consider whether a criminal charge is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, judges at sentencing may consider whether facts are proved based on a preponderance of the evidence, a lower standard of proof. Some U.S. lawmakers and defense lawyers have criticized the practice as unfair and a potential violation of defendants' civil rights. Some judges, including current Supreme Court justices, have also questioned it.


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