CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Exum on Honesty and Proportionality in Federal Sentencing

Exum Jelani Jefferson Exum (University of Kansas School of Law) has posted Why March to a Uniform Beat?: Adding Honesty and Proportionality to the Individualized Tunes of Federal Sentencing on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were initially created to increase uniformity in sentencing by diminishing the influence of individual judges’ biases in the sentencing determination. However, now that the Guidelines have been rendered advisory by the Supreme Court in United States v. Booker , and circuit courts have been directed to review sentences for “unreasonableness”, most of the Supreme Court’s attention has been focused on ensuring the preservation of uniformity, rather than recognizing the continued importance of bias reduction. The assumption, it seems, is that once uniformity in sentencing is achieved then the potential of judicial bias has been erased. However, judicial bias in sentencing is not necessarily eradicated by the uniformity promised by sentencing guidelines, and this possibility of bias in sentencing also has implications for the honesty and appropriate proportionality that Congress has called for to inform sentencing decisions. However, the Supreme Court has ignored these additional purposes of sentencing. Recently, in United States v. Gall, the Supreme Court explained that in order for a sentence to be procedurally reasonable, district courts must first calculate and consider the proper Guidelines range, consider the §3553(a) sentencing factors, and adequately explain the chosen sentence. However, out of those three requirements for procedural reasonableness, only the requirement that district courts begin the sentencing process by calculating the applicable Guidelines range - the factor that the Court considers to be the most closely related to ensuring uniformity - has been given any force. The requirements to consider the §3553(a) factors and adequately explain the sentence have fallen by the wayside as vague concepts, though these are the requirements that can most effectively ensure the reduction of impermissible bias in sentencing by allowing for a check on both honesty and proportionality. This Article reveals the Supreme Court’s error in requiring that district courts begin their sentencing determinations by calculating and considering the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range in order for the sentence to be procedurally reasonable. Not only is this requirement based on a misreading of the sentencing statutes, but it also cuts against the sentencing principles set forth by Congress as well as the traditional concern with individualized sentencing that has always been at the heart of sentencing jurisprudence and that are reflected in both the honesty and proportionality goals.

This Article provides an in-depth look at the Guidelines themselves in order to make the argument that the Supreme Court’s approach to sentencing post-Booker is misguided. The Supreme Court’s framework for an advisory Guidelines scheme allows the biases that are already buried in the Guidelines themselves to continue to act as the prevailing factors in sentencing. These biases, whatever the source, counteract Congress’ three-fold purpose in promulgating the Sentencing Guidelines in the first place - honesty, uniformity, and proportionality. Even the recent Supreme Court decision, Kimbrough v. United States, acknowledged that the Guidelines can sometimes create unwarranted disparities and lead to sentences that are unduly harsh. The new, advisory Guidelines system provides the opportunity for the Court to require that sentences be based on §3553(a) factors, in order to create uniformity in sentencing purposes rather than just in sentencing results, and to require real explanations to justify those sentences. Therefore, this Article proposes that the Supreme Court do away with the procedural requirement that district courts begin the sentencing process by calculating the Guidelines range in order to remove the possibility of using the Guidelines as a shield behind which to hide bias in the name of uniformity. As this Article asserts, not only is this outcome statutorily mandated, but it serves Congress’ own articulated sentencing principles and is consistent with notions of sentencing fairness that is reflected in the concept of individualized sentencing.

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See a very relevant post in, demonstrating that judge-made law, rather than congress-made law, is still alive and well.

Posted by: Yatzmach Purkonai | Sep 1, 2009 7:34:24 AM

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