Legislation would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the lead sponsors of the landmark First Step Act, today introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021. This legislation would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury. U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN-09) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) plan to introduce House companion legislation next week.
“Under our Constitution, defendants can only be convicted of a crime if a jury of their peers finds they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, federal law inexplicably allows judges to override a jury verdict of ‘not guilty’ by sentencing defendants for acquitted conduct. This practice is inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial,” Durbin said. “Our bipartisan, bicameral bill would make it clear that this unjust practice is prohibited under federal law.”
“If any American was acquitted of past charges by a jury of their peers, then some sentencing judge down the line shouldn’t be able to find them guilty anyway and add to their punishment. A bedrock principle of our criminal justice system is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. The use of acquitted conduct in sentencing punishes people for what they haven’t been convicted of. That’s not acceptable and it’s not American. Back in 2014, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg all agreed, but weren’t able to hear the case and stop the practice. Our bill will finally prohibit under federal law what many already find patently unconstitutional,” Grassley said.
“It’s not just a matter of basic fairness, it’s also about upholding the Constitutional guarantee of due process. Criminal sentences should be based on crimes of which the defendant was convicted. I’m pleased to join Senators Durbin and Grassley, and Congressman Armstrong in this effort to protect the rights of all Americans by clarifying that judges cannot rely on conduct that wasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt when determining sentences,” said Cohen.
“The right of criminal defendants to be judged by a jury of their peers is a foundational principle of the Constitution. The current practice of allowing federal judges to sentence defendants based on conduct for which they were acquitted by a jury is not right and it’s not fair. I am honored to join this bipartisan sentencing reform legislation,” said Armstrong.
Our criminal justice system rests on the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial for the criminally accused. These principles require the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. Under the Constitution, defendants may be convicted only for conduct proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, at sentencing, courts may enhance sentences if they find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant committed other crimes. The difference in those standards of proof means that a sentencing court can effectively nullify a jury’s verdict by considering acquitted conduct.
One prominent example of this unjust practice is the 2005 case of Antwuan Ball, who, along with his co-defendants, was convicted of distributing a few grams of crack cocaine, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs. Despite this, the sentencing judge held Mr. Ball responsible for the conspiracy, nearly quadrupling his sentence to 19 years. Mr. Ball asked the Supreme Court to consider his case, but the Court denied the petition for the writ of certiorari. Justice Scalia wrote a blistering dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas, noting that “not only did no jury convict these defendants of the offense the sentencing judge thought them guilty of, but a jury acquitted them of that offense.” Scalia decried the practice, writing that, “this has gone on long enough.”
The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act would end this practice by:
Along with Durbin and Grassley, the legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Thom Tillis (R-NC).
The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act is endorsed by the following organizations: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Due Process Institute, ALEC Action, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Black Public Defenders Association, Digital Liberty, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Drug Policy Alliance, Fair Trials, Faith and Freedom Coalition, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, The Innocence Project, Justice Action Network, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Prison Fellowship, R Street Institute, Right on Crime, The Sentencing Project, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Tzedek Association.
Bill text is available here.