Sentencing Reductions versus Sentencing Equality
20 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2016 Last revised: 4 Aug 2016
Date Written: October 16, 2015
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted by an odd conglomeration of Democrat and Republican who agreed that federal sentences should be based upon relevant offender and offense characteristics, not including such things as race, gender, geography, ideological bent of the sentencing judge, or citizenship. That goal has become lost and less relevant in today’s world of draconian and mandatory minimum sentencing, especially in the drug trafficking, child pornography, and fraud arenas. Mass incarceration has run rampant. Sentences are so out-of-whack with most basic principles justice that the fact that female offenders may receive slightly lower prison terms than their male counterparts should no longer be the very top of our reform agenda. This is not to suggest that scholars and the public shouldn’t be concerned with sentencing disparity, especially based on race. However, the disparity between federal and state sentences is so much wider (and occurs so much more frequently) than the disparity among similarly-situated federal offenders that the latter appears less of a significant issue in absolute terms. Whatever reform capital policy-makers and scholars retain should be poured into championing alternatives to criminalization (such as fines, drug treatment, and apologies) and alternatives to long prison terms (such as probation and parole). Reforms must focus on discovering what offenses we could safely decriminalize, and what programs are effective in keeping individuals out of prison in the first place (or in curbing recidivism once incarceration has occurred). If giving judges more discretion at sentencing means lower average prison terms, this will probably rebound to the benefit of our minority populations as a whole, even if it might mean that in particular cases minority defendants receive slightly higher sentences for the same conduct as their white counterparts. Likewise, if sentencing, parole, and probation decisions based upon “risk assessment” leads to lower overall incarceration rates, we may have to tolerate this even if it generates higher risk numbers for certain minority offenders. Critics of every substantive criminal-law and sentencing reform proposal need to remember the big picture, and not lose sight of the forest of mass incarceration for the trees of unwarranted sentencing disparity.
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