In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision regarding sentence reduction for defendants who entered plea agreements. The case, Freeman v. U.S., was about what to do with defendants already serving time when sentencing guidelines were later reduced. The Court decided that people who entered plea agreements could be eligible for reduced sentences when the guidelines are later changed. Questions remained, however, about which defendants would have access to sentence reduction.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that should clear up some of the confusion about plea agreements and sentence reduction. One of the cases involves defendants whose initial sentences were already below sentencing guidelines, based on their cooperation with authorities. The second case involves a defendant who was denied a sentence reduction by a lower court because his plea agreement was not expressly tied to the sentence guidelines in place at the time he entered it.
Sentencing guidelines will likely change
These issues are important because of the growing understanding that stiff sentencing guidelines lead to unjust results. Critics even include some judges and prosecutors who feel that they are being forced to levy punishments that do not match the crimes committed by defendants. As the pressure grows, federal and state governments are likely to make changes to sentencing guidelines. How those changes are applied to people already in jail is an important question.
Depending on how the Court rules in these cases, the language of a plea agreement could take on additional importance. It is not just the conditions of the sentence that matter, but the explanation of how the parties arrived at the deal. It may be necessary for all plea agreements to contain express language declaring that they are tied to the applicable sentencing guideline range. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help in ensuring that defendants get the benefit of any changes to the guidelines in the future.