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NY Repeat Offender Law Ruled Unconstitutional

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By Kamika Dunlap on April 02, 2010 10:50 AM

A federal court has ruled that the NY repeat offender law is unconstitutional.

The state law which allows judges, not juries, to hand down harsher sentences to repeat offenders was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

Under the current law, judges decide whether to throw the book at repeat felons. The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the state law was flawed and violates defendants' constitutional right to a jury trial, the New York Times reports.

Defense lawyers said the ruling paves the way for challenges to sentences by inmates convicted since 2004 of felonies including robbery, assault and drug distribution.

New York's persistent felony offender statute allowed trial judges to determine whether longer sentences were appropriate after reviewing the "history of character" of criminals convicted of three felonies.

Defendants convicted of two previous felonies could be designated as persistent felons and could face 10 times longer for a third offense, up to 15 years to life in prison.

However, the current statute does not link the penalty to a specific felony crime, compared to the Penal Law governing penalties for first- or repeat-felony offenders.

In one case considered by the court, a man convicted of the theft of a wallet at a bus terminal had been sentenced to 20 years to life in prison and designated as repeat offender because of 70 similar thefts.

According to NY state prison officials, there are 2,467 inmates now serving sentences as persistent felony offenders. The retroactive application was an issue in only one of the five cases by the court.

Based on the ruling, the court sent four cases back to lower courts to figure out whether sentencing errors occurred and if they should be changed because of its ruling.

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