The pendulum swings.
It is now fashionable to be “soft on crime” rather than “hard on crime.” This is largely because being hard on crime has become ridiculously expensive. I get that, and, in fact, agree with it. However, before we provide group hugs to the special little snow flakes (each one is unique don’t you know) who will reside in our federal prisons, we ought, at least, to know what goals we seek to achieve when we send them to federal prison.
From 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), here are what judges are supposed consider now regarding the goals of sentencing:
(a) Factors To Be Considered in Imposing a Sentence.—The court shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in paragraph (2) of this subsection. The court, in determining the particular sentence to be imposed, shall consider—
(1) the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant;
(2) the need for the sentence imposed—
(A) to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;
(B) to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
(C) to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and
(D) to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner;
(3) the kinds of sentences available;
(4) the kinds of sentence and the sentencing range established for—
(A) the applicable category of offense committed by the applicable category of defendant as set forth in the guidelines—
(i) issued by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to section 994(a)(1) of title 28, United States Code, subject to any amendments made to such guidelines by act of Congress (regardless of whether such amendments have yet to be incorporated by the Sentencing Commission into amendments issued under section 994(p) of title 28); and
(ii) that, except as provided in section 3742(g), are in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced; or
(B) in the case of a violation of probation or supervised release, the applicable guidelines or policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to section 994(a)(3) of title 28, United States Code, taking into account any amendments made to such guidelines or policy statements by act of Congress (regardless of whether such amendments have yet to be incorporated by the Sentencing Commission into amendments issued under section 994(p) of title 28);
(5) any pertinent policy statement—
(A) issued by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to section 994(a)(2) of title 28, United States Code, subject to any amendments made to such policy statement by act of Congress (regardless of whether such amendments have yet to be incorporated by the Sentencing Commission into amendments issued under section 994(p) of title 28); and
(B) that, except as provided in section 3742(g), is in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced.1
(6) the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct; and
(7) the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.
If you read these goals and try to apply them seriously you will end up insane. They are inherently contradictory. They provide no meaningful guidance to the sentencing judge.
If you believe that federal judges are like Platonic guardians imbued with the powers that only the elite can possess, these goals are perfect. Essentially, the federal judge is told to do the right thing. The Supreme Court’s line of cases (e.g., Booker) punctuates that point by making the Guidelines irrelevant for the sentencing judge inclined to sentence without meaningful external constraint. On the other hand, if you believe, as I do, that federal sentencing judges require specific direction from Congress because (1) that is the democratic way and (2) federal judges are no more smarter when it comes to sentencing than the reasonably well-informed lay person, then it is clear that we must junk or rewrite section 3553(a).
In sum, I don’t care whether section 3553(a) is rewritten or junked entirely. If Congress elects to rewrite the statute, so long as the statute sets consistent sentencing goals, I don’t care what goals Congress picks. If Congress junks the statute (or leaves it unchanged), and, by so doing, proclaims that we federal judges are to pick the goals that we think best, then that’s fine too. I just want to know what I am supposed to do at sentencing. Is that too much to ask?