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Beyond Articulation: Toward a Purpose-Focused Theory of Reasonableness for Federal Sentencing

Posted: 13 Aug 2010 Last revised: 6 Oct 2010

Jelani Jefferson Exum

University of Toledo College of Law

Date Written: August 12, 2010


This Work-in-Progress argues that the “reasonableness” standard of review for federal sentences can never be meaningful unless and until a guiding purpose is given to the reasonableness standard. Currently, the reasonableness standard stands empty, and is incapable of guiding district courts in their sentencing or of directing appellate courts in appropriate review. The current inconsistencies among and within circuits on how to apply reasonableness review, 5 years after they were directed to do so, demonstrates that there is something lacking in the standard. Therefore, this Work discusses the inherent problem of reasonableness when applied to sentencing, and suggests approaches to infuse meaning into reasonableness review though a purpose-focused approach.

The Supreme Court has issued opinions over the last five years that have substantially altered the federal sentencing landscape, beginning with the 2005 decision in United States v. Booker. In Booker, the Court excised portions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that gave the Guidelines the force of law, and instructed circuit courts to begin reviewing sentences for “unreasonableness”. In the opinions following Booker, the Court has professed answering the many questions that arose under the new, advisory Guidelines system; however, these decisions often resulted in increased muddling of the sentencing standards. In one of those post-Booker decisions, United States v. Gall, the Court explained that reasonableness review has both a procedural and substantive component. In order to be procedurally reasonable in sentencing, district courts must first calculate and consider the proper Guidelines range, consider the §3553(a) sentencing factors, and adequately explain the chosen sentence. In deciding whether a sentence is substantively reasonable, circuit courts are to apply a totality of the circumstances, abuse of discretion standard giving “due deference to the district court’s decision that the §3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify [the sentence].” Despite the explanation given in the Gall opinion, the rules for what constitutes a reasonable sentence, as well as the role of the appellate courts in deciphering when a sentencing court has abused its discretion by a sentencing court, remain unclear. Thus, circuit courts take a variety of inconsistent approaches toward determining whether sentences are reasonable. This Work-in-Progress argues that reasonableness ought to be infused with substance that is based upon the purposes of federal sentencing. Many of these purposes are found in the §3553(a) sentencing factors, yet very little consistent meaning has been given to those factors. The Work will set forth an approach (or approaches) to purpose-focused sentencing that will allow a system requiring the individualization of sentences to retain meaningful sentencing uniformity.

Keywords: Federal Sentencing

Suggested Citation

Jefferson Exum, Jelani, Beyond Articulation: Toward a Purpose-Focused Theory of Reasonableness for Federal Sentencing (August 12, 2010). Available at SSRN:

Jelani Exum (Contact Author)

University of Toledo College of Law ( email )

2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606
United States

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