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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ind. Decisions - Court's ruling could reduce sentences for some inmates

"Court's ruling could reduce sentences for some inmates" is the headline to a story in today's Indianapolis Star about the Supreme Court's ruling yesterday in Smylie v. State (see yesterday's ILB entry, with case link, here). The Star story, by Kevin Corcoran and John Tuohy, reports:

The Indiana Supreme Court struck down part of the state's sentencing law Wednesday, which could lead to reductions in sentences for some criminals and make it harder for judges to order stiffer-than-usual sentences. However, prisoners who have exhausted their appeals could not seek a shorter stay behind bars. * * *

The state Supreme Court was ruling on the case of Adolphe E. Smylie, 45, who pleaded guilty in Johnson Superior Court to two counts of child seduction for offenses that took place from May 2001 to May 2002. Smylie was given consecutive two-year terms by Johnson Superior Court Judge Kevin Barton, who relied on aggravating factors no jury had heard. * * *

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court advised Indiana lawmakers that they could fix the law two ways: They could require juries to hear evidence used to enhance sentences, or they could get rid of fixed prison terms for various crimes and give judges broad power to sentence within ranges.

"It is apparent Indiana's sentencing system runs afoul of the Sixth Amendment," Chief Justice Randall Shepard wrote for the majority.

Indiana law creates a standard fixed sentence for each class of crime that can be added to or reduced based on aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Many judges were ordering longer sentences based on information that didn't necessarily come before a jury. Now, prosecutors will have to prove that information to a jury before a sentence can be increased.

In anticipation of the ruling, the Indiana Senate passed a bill 49-0 on March 1 that addresses the Supreme Court's concerns. Senate Bill 96, written by Sens. Glenn Howard, D-Indianapolis, and David Long, R-Fort Wayne, would keep Indiana's fixed sentences and change state law to require jurors to hear evidence of aggravating factors. The bill is eligible for House action. * * *

Most Indiana trial courts did not follow the sweeping federal ruling in the Blakely v. Washington case until September, more than three months after the federal ruling had been issued, said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

To meet the federal requirement, Indiana judges began holding separate hearings with jurors to receive findings on "aggravating" factors that could be used to lengthen sentences. This followed a talk by Marion Superior Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson at a judicial conference on potential implications of the federal ruling, Johnson said.

Magnus-Stinson said the court requires county prosecutors to file notice if they plan on introducing aggravating circumstances, with facts supporting their claims. Names of witnesses and exhibits must be turned over to the defense in case a fact-finding hearing is needed.

For background on Senate Bill 96, see this ILB entry from Feb. 23, 2005.

Deanna Wrenn of the Associated Press also has a story today on the ruling (with contributions from Sara Eaton and Niki Kelly of The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette). Some quotes:

In January [sic.], the U.S. Supreme Court threw the federal sentencing system into turmoil when it ruled that the way judges have been sentencing about 60,000 defendants a year is unconstitutional.

Indiana has a similar sentencing procedure to that of the federal system, and it was being challenged in two separate cases before the Indiana Supreme Court. It was one of those cases the court decided on a 4-1 basis Wednesday.

The Indiana General Assembly is a considering a bill that could restore the constitutionality of the state’s sentencing system.

State lawmakers had envisioned such a problem over the summer and studied the issue as part of a sentencing review commission. As a result, Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, introduced legislation that has already passed the Senate changing Indiana’s sentencing statute to meet the new rules.

“The good news is Senate Bill 96 is a cure-all,” Long said Wednesday after the ruling was handed down. “It is right on the money.”

The bill would require county prosecutors to submit a list of aggravators they intend to use as a basis for an enhanced prison term against a defendant at least 30 days before the trial. They would also have to prove any factors used to increase a person’s sentence before a jury in a separate proceeding.

“This bill saves our sentencing process in the state,” Long said of the legislation, which is expected to pass easily in the House.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision had already spurred changes in Allen County as judges and attorneys throughout the state anticipated a similar ruling on the state level.

In September, the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office began filing paperwork listing the factors it believed could be used to lengthen a particular defendant’s prison term. There has been at least one trial in Allen Superior Court during which jurors ruled on aggravating circumstances submitted by prosecutors.

Allen Superior Court Judges Fran Gull and John F. Surbeck Jr. both said Wednesday they believe the transition to the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling will be easier because some changes have already been implemented.

“We have been expecting this decision,” Gull said. “We got together and said what can we do to change it?”

Surbeck said the judges will have to read over the ruling to ensure that no other changes will be necessary.

The changes mean jurors will endure lengthier trials and defendants who admit their guilt through a plea agreement waive their rights to have a jury determine the aggravating factors that could make their sentences longer.

Many prosecutors in northeast Indiana previously told The Journal Gazette they believe proving aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury is problematic for many reasons and therefore had not yet made changes in their counties in anticipation of this ruling.

Finally, for now, check Bloomington attorney Michael Ausbrook's posting in his blog, INCourts.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 10, 2005 08:17 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions