States have sentencing guidelines for judges to use as they determine the appropriate sentence for those who have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of a crime. There are also maximum sentences under state law that judges can’t exceed.
Often, prosecutors argue that the judge should impose the maximum sentence (or at least a sentence at the far end of the sentencing guidelines). A defendant’s attorney will argue that they warrant a sentence at the lower end of the guidelines – or even an alternative such as probation, restitution or substance abuse treatment.
What was Blakely v. Washington?
Judges used to have the ability to exceed the maximum sentence if they felt the circumstances surrounding the crime warranted it. That changed in 2004 with the Blakely v. Washington case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that exceeding the maximum sentence violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by a jury – since the judge was the one imposing the longer sentence.
However, that didn’t completely put an end to sentences that exceed the maximum. Today, the terms “Blakely motion” or “Blakely factors” are used when prosecutors seek a sentence that exceeds state law.
These are used when there are aggravating factors they believe warrant a longer sentence. Perhaps a defendant was in a position of authority – like a police officer – when they committed a crime. Maybe a crime was committed in front of a child or a defendant acted with particular cruelty. The defense has the opportunity to present an argument to the judge against granting the motion.
How does Blakely protect a defendant’s constitutional rights?
In order to protect a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, a Blakely motion, if granted, would involve presenting the case for a harsher sentence to a jury and having them decide. The reasoning is that the jury made its original decision with the knowledge of the sentencing guidelines and law.
A defendant, however, has the option to waive that requirement and let the judge make the decision. They may believe that a judge is more sympathetic to them than the jury would be.
Prevailing in the justice system – or at least making the best of your situation – often depends on being able to strategize based on knowledge and experience. That’s why you should never try to go through it alone.