Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance
17 Pages Posted: 20 May 2015
Date Written: May 15, 2015
Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error. Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness. This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error. What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.
The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance. Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions. It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices. Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system. After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.
Keywords: sentencing error, federal sentencing, collateral review, loss of chance, criminal procedure, legitimacy
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