Sentencing Guidelines in Michigan: What You Need to Know

State of Michigan seal depicting sentencing guidelines

A news story from Jackson, Michigan in May 2020 may have one questioning what the sentencing guidelines in Michigan are.

The story headline is an attention grabber. “Judge ordered to explain or change harsh sentence for man convicted in road rage hammer attack.”

However, the story is even more stunning.

In February 2018, Jonathan McPherson, tailed two sisters in their car in Rives Township. He drove alongside them and shouted in . Next, he forced them to stop by pulling his car up in front of theirs and slamming on his breaks.

Once they were stopped, McPherson exited his vehicle with a claw hammer and smashed the sister’s car headlight. He then walked to the passenger window and threatened the passenger with “I’m going to kill you.”

The woman eventually recognized him as someone her daughter knew and who had threatened to kill her.

The woman driver of the car had a concealed pistol license – exited the vehicle with her gun and fired a single shot as McPherson got back in his car.

He backed his car up and rammed theirs with it, knocking the driver down and inflicting severe injuries.

According to the news story, McPherson was later arrested and charged with:

  • Two felony counts of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder and
  • One count each of failure to stop at the scene of a personal injury crash and malicious destruction of property.

Felony Sentencing Guidelines

In a less sensational but maybe just as interesting part of the story, Jackson County Circuit Judge John McBain sentenced McPherson to 5-10 years in prison after he was convicted.

However, sentencing guidelines indicated a sentence of 29 to 57 months for the crimes.

A Michigan Court of Appeals has ordered Judge McBain to re-sentence McPherson or explain why he should receive this harsher sentence.

Can judges sentence convicted criminals to any sentence they choose?

The answer is yes, and no.

While judges do have some discretion over sentencing, most of the time, they choose to use the state sentencing guidelines rather than go rogue.

As a judge, if you don’t follow the guidelines, you are much more likely to have your decision questioned. That is an unpleasant part of any judge’s job.

Rather than have their decisions questioned or overturned, judges most often follow these advisory suggestions – state sentencing guidelines – for people convicted of felonies.

Michigan has had these guidelines since 1984, and they continue to be updated. Michigan law states the maximum penalty for each felony, but sentencing guidelines help judges determine the lower end or the minimum sentence for that felony.

Judges Who Don’t Follow Guidelines

Things like prison sentences can’t be determined based on the feelings of the judge about one crime or another. Thus, if a judge departs from a standard punishment for a felony – either with too high of a sentence or too low – he or she will be subject to a “reasonableness review.”

It is the appellate court’s job to look at how reasonable and proportionate the sentence was and whether it violated the “principle of proportionality.”

Was the punishment proportional to the seriousness of the crime, or was it too harsh or too lenient?

The truth is, most judges aren’t handing down life sentences for low-level felonies like home invasion. Sometimes, the crime at hand isn’t all that serious.

Moreover, sentencing guidelines get harsher the more felonies someone has on their record – it enhances the maximum allowable sentence.

But sometimes, a judge decides the crime deserves a harsher punishment than the guidelines allow. Sometimes judges want to give people a break because they think their case warrants leniency.

Did Judge McBain believe Jonathan McPherson deserved a higher sentence, and why? The news story doesn’t say how extensive the driver’s injuries were, but that certainly might have been a deciding factor in the case.

McPherson claimed he was suffering from PTSD as a result of military service during his trial. Even so, he failed to produce evidence that he had been diagnosed with the disorder.

Maybe Judge McBain believed McPherson’s actions had more violent intent than he was able to carry out if the driver had not had a pistol. However, the law can’t punish someone’s intent, only his crime.

Takeaway

The State of Michigan has sentencing guidelines in place to make sure that punishment is proportional to the crime. If there are deviations from the guidelines, the court is required to provide adequate reasons why.

If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges in Michigan, call today.

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