Monday, November 01, 2010

Virginia case raises questions about transparency in federal court sentencing

Since a federal defense attorney read some documents inadvertently mailed to his client, the courts in the Western District of Virginia are facing some criticism about transparency in sentencing, reports Mike Gangloff for the Roanoke Times. Usually after defendants are convicted in federal court, probation officers prepare a report to help judges decide punishment. The report includes a calculation of possible sentences under federal guidelines, based on scores for the offense and the defendant's criminal history. This part of the pre-sentence report is sealed from public view, but is shared with the prosecution and the defense and often debated in open court.  The part of the report not made public in most of the nation's 94 judicial districts is where the probation officer advises the judge what sentence to impose.

Federal defense lawyer Randy Cargill was representing a client who was sentenced to 33 months in prison. A month after his sentencing, the client received his routine copy of the sentencing report in the mail. But also in the envelope was the probation officer's confidential sentencing recommendation, accidentally mailed from the probation office. Cargill thought the report misrepresented his client and "fired off a letter to the head of the probation office, the U.S. attorney's office and the judicial district's chief judge. He called for a review of sentencing recommendations 'to be sure they do not contain facts that are not in the presentence report' and slammed the events that he said left his client unable to respond to inaccurate statements," writes Gangloff.

According to Gangloff, open criticism of court workings is unusual for lawyers. Chief Judge Glen Conrad believes the system works as it should: probation officers work for the court and judges -- not for the defense or the prosecution. Probation officers spend time investigating cases and defendants, often interviewing family and friends. "They may look at things ... that I would miss," Conrad told Gangloff.  (Read more)

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