Washington Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft wants prosecutors to closely monitor which judges impose more lenient sentences than federal guidelines recommend, a step some critics say could limit judicial independence.
Ashcroft directed U.S. attorneys nationwide to promptly report to Justice Department headquarters when a sentence is a "downward departure" from guidelines and not part of a plea agreement in exchange for cooperation.
"The Department of Justice has a solemn obligation to ensure that laws concerning criminal sentencing are faithfully, fairly and consistently enforced," Ashcroft wrote in the memo issued July 28.
Critics say the result will be more power in the hands of prosecutors and impermissible restraints on judicial discretion.
"It's telling judges from the get-go, 'If you want to depart that you will be put on a list and you will be watched,"' said Ryan King, research associate with The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group seeking alternatives to prison. "We're no longer judging a case on the merits."
Prosecutors were told in Ashcroft's memo to make sure the government is prepared to appeal more of these sentences if such a decision is made by lawyers in Solicitor General Theodore Olson's office. The upshot is that more decisions to appeal will be made at "main Justice" in Washington rather than left to prosecutors in the field.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the intent was to "get an accurate reporting of how the sentencing guidelines are being applied."
"It is an effort to make sure that someone who is convicted of a crime in California is treated no differently than a person who is convicted of the exact same crime in Massachusetts," Corallo said Thursday.
The sentencing guidelines were developed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, created by Congress in 1984 to reduce disparities in sentences imposed around the country -- subject to some judicial flexibility.