Opening of Sentencing Training for Judges

Remarks by Ambassador Jess L. Baily,

March 20, 2015
Hotel Arka, Skopje

Good morning, Добро утро, and miremengjes.

Minister Jashari,

Deputy Minister Brishkoska-Boshkovski, Judge Shopova, representative from the prosecution office, distinguished judges, thank you for inviting me to join you at today’s sentencing training event.

I particularly appreciate being here, as this is my first opportunity to address members of the Macedonian justice system.  Supporting rule of law has been and remains a focus of U.S. assistance in Macedonia.

Progress in rule of law, and especially in judicial independence, is crucial for Macedonia to move forward on its path towards EU and NATO integration – a goal that the United States shares with the people of Macedonia.

Today we are here to discuss sentencing guidelines which seems to be a rather technical subject but it’s not.

Sentencing guidelines promote fairness, transparency, and consistency – all critical elements in a strong and effective judicial system.

They also address citizen concerns about their court system.  This is a real issue in Macedonia; according to a 2014 poll conducted by IRI, Macedonian citizens by a two to one majority do not trust their court system.  Citizens should know that they will be treated equally under the law – that people who break the same law under similar facts will receive similar sentences.   This is what sentencing guidelines do; they increase citizen trust in the judiciary, a necessary component of a vibrant democracy.

In the United States we have a long history with sentencing reform, having developed our first sentencing guidelines more than thirty years ago.  And our system continues to evolve based on ongoing sentencing research and analysis.

For example, in recent years it became clear that there was an unfair disparity in sentencing related to some drug offenses in the United States.  Someone convicted of possessing crack cocaine was likely to receive a minimum sentence up to 100 times greater than someone convicted of possessing powder cocaine.

Critics persuasively argued that this sentencing disparity created an unfair bias against African-Americans, who were the majority of people convicted of the crack cocaine offenses that received the lengthier sentences.

Our Congress worked to fix this problem by enacting the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which vastly reduced the minimum sentencing differences between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  The result is a sentencing system that treats similar offenses more equally, ensuring fairer treatment for all.

Macedonia is also facing a problem with sentencing fairness.  Research in 2012 showed that for common crimes such as theft or drug possession, sentences were generally more lenient for people convicted in Gostivar and Stip, as compared with Skopje or Bitola.

Adopting sentencing guidelines and establishing a sentencing commission are strong and powerful steps toward addressing this problem.  I know that sentencing reform fueled healthy debate here in Macedonia, raising important issues like judicial discretion and independence – and that is a good thing.

Open debate by everyone involved is a crucial aspect of modern democracies, and should be welcomed and encouraged.  It’s important to note as well that addressing sentencing inconsistency is just one element of criminal justice reform.

Macedonia is already a Balkan leader in many areas of judicial reform, with a new adversarial criminal procedure code including enhanced human rights protections; the recently enacted foreign terrorism fighter law; and now with these new sentencing guidelines.

These legal reforms represent dramatic changes that may take years to fully implement, and may require additional course corrections along the way, as judicial change does not happen overnight.  But the time and effort you all put in now will pay enormous dividends in building a transparent and effective justice system for Macedonia.

The U.S. Embassy stands ready to assist with these important reforms, to help Macedonia develop a strong, independent judiciary that ensures equal treatment of all citizens under the law.  The people of Macedonia deserve no less.

Thank you again, and I wish you all success in your training.