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The Next Era of Sentencing Reform

85 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2005  

Steven L. Chanenson

Villanova University School of Law


This article charts a path for criminal sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent bombshell decision in Blakely v. Washington. Blakely has thrust sentencing systems across the country into turmoil. But Justice O'Connor was fundamentally wrong when, in her Blakely dissent, she exclaimed that Over 20 years of sentencing reform are all but lost. All is most assuredly not lost. Blakely, properly viewed, is an opportunity - albeit a disruptive one - to re-think and improve our sentencing systems.

The Blakely court interpreted the Sixth Amendment to require that any fact, other than the fact of prior conviction, increasing the potential statutory maximum punishment - including the punishment available pursuant to an unenhanced sentencing guideline range - be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether this rule applies to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Regardless of what the Court chooses to do, Congress and the state legislatures are re-evaluating their sentencing systems and looking for Blakely-compliant options.

This article does not seek to shape the Court's opinion, or to predict its decision. Instead, it charts a path for legislatures, sentencing commissions, and sentencing scholars. In this article, I set the groundwork for understanding fundamental elements of sentencing, and show the pieces moved by Blakely. I then examine several popular systemic responses to Blakely. Ultimately, I find their various strengths outweighed by their substantial weaknesses.

In the final section, I propose a new approach that would not only survive Blakely's constitutional commands but can lead us into the next era of sentencing reform. This proposal is not merely a Blakely fix, but a proposal that retains fidelity to the concerns and principles that led, over the past 30 years, to the modern sentencing reform revolution, and to structured sentencing systems. I propose a system of Indeterminate Structured Sentencing (ISS). ISS is an indeterminate sentencing system (that is, a system that includes parole release authority) in which a Super Commission guides both the sentencing and release functions. An ISS system honors judicial discretion but acknowledges the value of structural checks and balances. It permits high sentences in cases where a judge believes them appropriate while limiting the pressure to increase sentences across the board. ISS offers a balanced approach to sentencing that satisfies Blakely while simultaneously being sensible, just, and grounded in sentencing history, theory and practice.

Keywords: Blakely v. Washington, sentencing, Sixth Amendment, Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Suggested Citation

Chanenson, Steven L., The Next Era of Sentencing Reform. Villanova Law/Public Policy Research Paper No. 2004-18. Available at SSRN:

Steven L. Chanenson (Contact Author)

Villanova University School of Law ( email )

299 N. Spring Mill Road
Villanova, PA 19085
United States
610-519-7459 (Phone)
610-519-6472 (Fax)

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