Judicial Sentencing Error and the Constitution
56 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2016
Date Written: October 31, 2016
Much recent scholarship has sharply criticized the pervasive phenomenon of wrongful convictions, but the literature has overlooked an important related injustice: inaccuracy in criminal sentencing. This Article provides the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of judicial sentencing error, which has become widespread in the modern era of both ad hoc revision to criminal codes and increasingly complex criminal sentencing systems that often lack internal coherence or sensible statutory organization. Although nearly always the product of human error, the problem of judicial sentencing error is more aptly characterized as systemic because sentencing judges often face ever-changing, overlapping statutory requirements contained in separate parts of the criminal code. We identify both the source and harmful consequences of judicial sentencing error, and then examine constitutional principles implicated by the untimely correction of an erroneous sentence. Focusing particularly on a defendant’s interest in finality, we argue that the constitutional guarantees of substantive due process and protection against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment should be construed to limit the time to correct an erroneously lenient sentence, with the Double Jeopardy Clause supplying the more potent limiting principle and objective legal standard. We conclude that — by according respect for principles of finality in criminal sentencing — the law could create an effective institutional incentive for the State to ascertain the correctness of sentencing orders at or near the time of punishment, thereby preventing the harm and injustice that occur when the defendant’s reasonable expectation of finality has been frustrated for the legitimate but not indomitable sake of accuracy.
Keywords: sentencing, judicial error, wrongful conviction, due process, double jeopardy, finality, Fifth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, crime legislation
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