What's Wrong With Sentencing Equality?
76 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2016 Last revised: 6 Oct 2016
Date Written: 2016
Equality in criminal sentencing often translates into equalizing outcomes and stamping out variations, whether race-based, geographic, or random. This approach conflates the concept of equality with one contestable conception focused on outputs and numbers, not inputs and processes. Racial equality is crucial, but a concern with eliminating racism has hypertrophied well beyond race. Equalizing outcomes seems appealing as a neutral way to dodge contentious substantive policy debates about the purposes of punishment. But it actually privileges deterrence and incapacitation over rehabilitation, subjective elements of retribution, and procedural justice, and it provides little normative guidance for punishment. It also has unintended consequences for the structure of sentencing. Focusing on outcomes centralizes power and draws it up to higher levels of government, sacrificing the checks and balances, disaggregation, experimentation, and localism that are practically baked into sentencing’s constitutional framework. More flexible, process-oriented notions of equality might better give effect to a range of competing punishment considerations while still policing punishments for bias or arbitrariness. They also could bring useful nuance to equality debates that swirl around restorative justice, California’s Realignment experiment, federal use of fast-track plea agreements, and other contemporary sentencing practices.
Keywords: Sentencing, punishment, equality, checks and balances, localism, criminal law, criminal procedure, restorative justice, Realignment, sentencing guidelines
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