During impeachment storm, senators cross aisle to lessen mass incarceration
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A jury recently found Eric Beck not guilty of murder, but the judge sentenced him to prison for it anyway. The jury convicted Beck of firearms possession for which sentencing laws would have recommended he receive two to six years in prison. Nevertheless, the judge sentenced Beck to 20 to 33 years because he disagreed with the jury and believed—based on a lower legal standard than what our Constitution requires—that Beck was also guilty of murder.

All federal (and most state) judges currently have the ability to ignore a jury’s verdict and undermine the requirement that criminal convictions be imposed only after having been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, federal law currently allows judges to increase a person’s sentence if they determine that the government has proven its accusations under a mere “preponderance of evidence” standard. Although Beck’s sentence was ultimately overturned in a state supreme court, such “acquitted conduct sentencing” remains legal practically everywhere else.

The Bill of Rights sets out protections for the accused, including the right to trial by jury and due process of law. The Double Jeopardy Clause rejects retrying—and thus punishing—a defendant for a crime for which he has been acquitted. And, as the Supreme Court has explained, the Sixth Amendment’s “core concern” is to reserve critical facts for determination by the jury. Punishing an accused person based on acquitted conduct abrogates all of these constitutional protections as well as notions of fundamental fairness.

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Jurists across the ideological spectrum have assailed the practice. Five years ago, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgJudge Judy on expanding Supreme Court: 'It's a dumb idea' Court watchers buzz about Breyer's possible retirement Five hot-button issues Biden didn't mention in his address to Congress MORE and Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court gets it wrong again, denying justice to those in uniform Overnight Defense: Top general drops objection to major change in prosecuting military sexual assault | Supreme Court declines to take up case from former West Point cadet | Pentagon says 'small' attacks not affecting Afghanistan withdrawal Supreme Court declines to hear case over former West Point cadet's rape allegations MORE, wrote that sentencing based on acquitted conduct “has gone on long enough.” Former Justice John Paul Stevens rejected the practice and Justices Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchConservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Top GOP super PAC endorses Murkowski amid primary threat Trump-era grievances could get second life at Supreme Court MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael Kavanaugh Klobuchar offers tribute to her father, who died Wednesday Conservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Supreme Court weighs whether to limit issuance of exemptions to biofuel blending requirements MORE each eschewed it as circuit court judges. Just last year, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millett wrote that the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, “allowed the government a second bite at the incarceration apple,” and explained that “Incarceration without conviction is a constitutional anathema.”

A jury of one’s peers serves as a democratic bulwark against the imposition of arbitrary government punishment. Our Founders understood that criminal prosecution was one of the strongest tools a government could use against its people. They determined that their government must prove its case to the accused’s community through a jury. A rule that allows a judge to base a person’s sentence on unproven accusations a jury has actually rejected turns these constitutional protections on their head.

Jurors understand the stakes in the cases before them, sometimes sacrificing their lives for months to ensure justice is done. One juror published a moving letter to the judge after he learned the defendant in his trial was to be sentenced for conduct the jury had purposefully rejected. He wrote, “What does it say to our contribution as jurors when we see our verdicts…not given their proper weight? …Had [prosecutors] shown us hard evidence, [a guilty verdict] might have been the outcome, but that was not the case.”

Despite the many condemnations of acquitted conduct sentencing, it remains accepted practice. The Due Process Institute—a bipartisan nonprofit dedicated to restoring fairness in the criminal legal system—has been leading the fight to abolish this practice both in courts and on Capitol Hill. We have recently filed an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of this practice. But we can’t afford to wait for the High Court to do the right thing.

Therefore, we proudly endorse bipartisan legislation—the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019 (S.2566)—introduced last week by Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block MORE (D-Ill.), Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Biden says workers can't turn down job and get benefits | Treasury launches state and local aid | Businesses jump into vax push Grassley criticizes Biden's proposal to provide IRS with B The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Infrastructure, Cheney ouster on deck as Congress returns MORE (R-Iowa), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection Biden officials testify that white supremacists are greatest domestic security threat Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Vt.), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Energy: Colonial Pipeline says it has restored full service | Biden urges people not to panic about gasoline shortages | EPA rescinds Trump-era cost-benefit rule Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick Hillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (R-Utah), Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines MORE (D-N.J.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate hears from Biden's high-profile judicial nominees for first time Senate Democrats take aim at 'true lender' interest rate rule Former North Carolina chief justice launches Senate campaign MORE (R-N.C.). This proposed law would make it clear that a judge cannot increase a person’s prison sentence based on acts for which a person was found not guilty. It ensures that a person who is punished with prison is only punished for those crimes that a prosecutor proved, not those they would have liked to have proven.

Justice is not a partisan issue and every American wants a fair and effective criminal justice system. That requires respect for due process, restoring the primacy of the citizen jury, and adhering to the core principles of our Constitution. We applaud Grassley and Durbin for leading the effort to reach across the aisle in a difficult political environment to affirm that Americans should not serve prison time for crimes they did not commit.

Shana-Tara O’Toole is the Founder and President of the Due Process Institute. The Due Process Institute is a bipartisan 501(c)(4) who educates, lobbies, and litigates on behalf of the principles of fundamental fairness and procedural due process rights in the criminal legal system. In conjunction with today’s legislation introduction, the Due Process Institute also announces the launch of its national education, advocacy, and litigation campaign #JuriesDecide.