News Release ~ 04/01/2003

Sneak amendments to Amber Alert bill would strip discretion from federal judges

Amendments added at last minute, without conference discussion 

Washington, DC (April 1, 2003) -- Criminal defense lawyers, judges, and civil rights groups want the U.S. Senate to knock out last-minute House amendments to the Amber Alert bill that would strip federal judges of the last remaining vestiges of discretion in sentencing federal offenders.

The amendments, which would potentially affect all federal defendants, are completely unrelated to the underlying Amber Alert legislation.

“The [Federal Sentencing] Guidelines are already a straightjacket for judges,” said Lawrence Goldman, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "They have already severely limited judges’ ability to make individualized sentences."

The amendments to the House version of the bill pending in Congress would greatly hamper the ability of judges to depart downward from the recommended guideline sentence, unless the prosecution agreed. Departures for military service and extraordinary family responsibilities, for instance, would be prohibited.

Several civil rights groups signed on to an NACDL letter to House members opposing the provision the evening before the vote.

"These amendments leave the outcome of the case in the hands of one of the litigants, the prosecutor, rather than letting judges serve as judges," said Goldman, a criminal defense lawyer in New York City. “This House sneak attack should be rejected by the Senate. Any amendments to the Guidelines should first be considered by the independent Sentencing Guidelines Commission which Congress itself established. "

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 9,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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