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Bad Judgement, Questionable Release Conditions in Sentencing Case

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 06, 2015 4:20 PM

In a reminder that sentencing can be a difficult balancing act, the Seventh Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Posner, has vacated the sentence imposed on a recidivist substance abuser. The judgment was reversed technically for failure to consult the relevant sentencing guidelines, though the court didn't hesitate to tell the district court judge that he ought to reconsider the conditions of supervised release as well.

The opinion addresses the case of Joshua Downs, who six months after he was given probation for a drug offense, injured another while drunk driving. His probation revoked, Downs was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and ten years of supervised release -- without the judge examining the sentencing guidelines for his offense.

Always Address the Guidelines

On appeal, Downs challenged the length of his supervised release. Federal guidelines set out uniform sentencing ranges for felonies and serious misdemeanors. For Downs' drug offense, the minimum supervised release was three years. So was the maximum. (Not afraid of pedantry, Posner notes this is a point, not a range.) Though the judge was not bound to these limits -- the sentencing guidelines don't have to be followed if not fitting -- he was required to at least calculate the range and assess its appropriateness before sentencing. Since he did not, the whole sentence could not stand.

The government had argued that the error was harmless. The judge, the state said, would have imposed the ten years of supervised release no matter what. To which the court responded, "Maybe he would have, but who knows?"

Warnings Regarding Release Conditions and Prison Term

The Seventh Circuit's opinion made it clear that there were other questionable aspects of the punishment. Chief Judge of the Southern District of Illinois, Michael Reagan, was reminded to "reexamine the specific conditions imposed in light of our recent decisions, perhaps to discard some, and certainly to reword others." Of the 22 conditions imposed, several were called out by name, including requirements that Downs obtain permission to leave the jurisdiction, that he support his family, and that he does not associate with felons.

The opinion came close to instructing the district court to remove the questioned supervised release terms -- and replace them with a longer prison sentence. If those release conditions are narrowed or shortened, the judge "may wish the reexamine the prison sentence" to make up for the easing of release terms.

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