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Article

Kimberly Kaiser

Sentencing guidelines were created with the goal of reducing unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, gender, and other legally irrelevant characteristics in order to establish a uniform sentencing system. In the 21st century, approximately 21 states and the federal courts use sentencing guidelines, although the types of guidelines used vary, with some more restrictive than others. With the quest to create more uniform sentences, scholars have examined whether the guidelines have actually reduced unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes. One area that has received attention from sentencing scholars as an avenue for the potential reintroduction of disparity into the sentencing process is the ability to sentence offenders outside of the guideline range, a practice otherwise known as “sentencing departures.” Departures from guideline sentences are either below or above the suggested guideline range for a particular offense, with most departures resulting in below guideline sentences. Both judges and prosecutors have the authority to issue departures. Within the federal sentencing guideline system, prosecutors have the sole discretion to offer substantial assistance and other types of government-sponsored downward departures. The amount of discretion given to federal judges to depart from the guidelines has changed dramatically over the years, and the use of departures has subsequently increased in recent years. Research has examined whether this increase in departures has resulted in an increase in unwarranted disparity once again. This research has primarily focused on two related questions: (1) Have departures increased disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other factors? (2) Who is most likely to receive a departure sentence? Several studies have found there to be differences in likelihood of receiving departures; with African Americans, males, and offenders charged with specific types of crimes less likely to receive downward departures. Other research, however, has further suggested that the increased use of departures may not have increased sentencing disparities based on race or ethnicity. Additionally, a new scope of research has emerged which takes a more nuanced examination of sentencing departures; looking at variations among districts, policy disagreement departures, and other considerations. Ultimately, the current body of research on the use, consequences, and implications of sentencing departures has provided some mixed findings and many questions remain unresolved. As research on departures continues, our understanding of the complex nature of sentencing decisions under guideline based systems will continue to grow.

Article

Alexes Harris and Frank Edwards

Despite the central role that fines and other fiscal penalties play in systems of criminal justice, they have received relatively little scholarly attention. Court systems impose fines and other monetary sanctions in response to minor administrative and traffic offenses as well as for more serious criminal offenses. Monetary sanctions are intended to provide a deterrent punishment to reduce lawbreaking, to provide opportunities for accountability through financial restitution, to restore harm caused to victims of crime, and to fund the operation and administration of courts and criminal justice systems. Fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions are the most common form of punishment imposed by criminal justice systems. Most criminal sentences in the United States include financial penalties, and monetary sanctions are routinely imposed for less serious, and far more common, infractions such as traffic or parking violations. For many, paying a monetary sanction for a low-level violation is an annoyance. However, for the poor and people of color who are disproportionately likely to be subject to criminal justice system involvement, monetary sanctions can become a vehicle for expanded social inequality and increasingly severe criminal justice contact. Failure to pay legal financial obligations often results in court summons or license suspensions that may have attendant additional costs and may trigger incarceration. In the United States, the criminal justice system is heavily and routinely involved in the lives of low-income people of color. These already-existing biases, coupled with the deep poverty that is common in many communities, join to widen the net of criminal justice involvement by escalating low-level infractions to far more serious offenses when people are unable to pay. Despite the routine justification of monetary sanctions as less-severe penalties, if imposed without restriction on the poor, they are likely to magnify the inequality producing effects of criminal justice system involvement.

Article

Lynne Haney and Lili Dao

In many respects, gender has been missing from the enormous literature on the form and focus of state systems of punishment. This is true in both the historical accounts on shifts in penal practices and the scholarship on the contemporary emergence of mass incarceration. Gender is absent as a category of analysis and as an explanatory variable in these scholarly debates. At the same time, while there is a large literature on women in the criminal justice and penal systems, it rarely addresses broader questions of how and why the penal system has grown in size, deepened in scope, and broadened in reach over the last few decades. There have been three major approaches to the study of gender and punishment. The first inserted women into accounts of the criminal justice and penal systems, which had historically concentrated on male offenders. Some of this early work used a historical lens to analyze shifts in women’s confinement practices, particularly the evolution of the reformatory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by debates in feminist legal theory about sameness and difference, one major line of inquiry sought to determine whether women were treated more leniently than men, particularly with regard to sentencing. A second approach, gaining momentum in the 2000s, shifted the focus from gender differences in outcomes to the gendered dynamics of penal control. More qualitative in nature, this scholarship conceptualized gender as a process that was both transformed and harnessed in penal institutions. Drawing on a broader movement in gender studies, this work focused less on women per se than on how gender was socially constituted. The third and final approach takes seriously the call of critical legal scholars of race and gender to examine the intersections of disadvantage. While academic analyses of intersectionality came to the fore in the 1990s, this perspective made few inroads into penology and criminology until relatively recently. Recent work on the intersection of racialization, masculinity and punishment, and the sexual politics of the prison point to promising new directions that transcend common understandings of criminalization and punishment.

Article

Much has been written about mass incarceration and how it has fallen especially hard on people of color. Given their representation in the U.S. population, for example, black and Hispanic males are far more likely than their white counterparts to be sent to jail or prison. Such disproportionality may be due to the greater involvement of blacks and Hispanics in serious street crime, especially violent crime, which would result in differential incarceration. It also could be due to discretionary decisions by criminal justice officials during arrest, charging, conviction—and, key to the focus of this article, sentencing—which might produce disparity, to the disadvantage of black and Hispanic men. Various theories seek to explain racial and ethnic sentencing disparity by focusing on characteristics of individuals and criminal cases, features of court organization and decision-making, and social contexts surrounding courts. Literally hundreds of studies in the past 40 years and beyond have focused on sentencing decisions in local courts and unwarranted racial/ethnic punishment disparity, defined as racial/ethnic differences that persist after accounting for legally prescribed and perhaps case-processing influences. Some reviews of this large and mature body of literature have shown that young, black, and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic male defendants tend to receive more severe sentences than other defendants. In addition, reviews have noted how the sentencing role of race/ethnicity is often conditional on gender and other factors, and that racial/ethnic disparity in sentencing varies in connection with characteristics of courts and their surrounding social contexts. Future research on race, ethnicity, and sentencing should address disparity in relation to earlier (e.g., charging and conviction) and later (e.g., parole, probation, or parole revocation) stages of criminal justice decisions, as well as how the social characteristics of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys affect disparity. Research studies should continue to examine how specific punishment policies (e.g., mandatory minimums, risk assessments, and sentencing guideline provisions and departures) may be the sources of racial and ethnic disparity.

Article

Christopher Seeds

Life without parole sentencing refers to laws, policies, and practices concerning lifetime prison sentences that also preclude release by parole. While sentences to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole have existed for more than a century in the United States, over the past four decades the penalty has emerged as a prominent element of U.S. punishment, routinely put to use by penal professionals and featured regularly in public discourse. As use of the death penalty diminishes in the United States, life without parole serves as the ultimate punishment in more and more U.S. jurisdictions. The scope with which states apply life without parole varies, however, and some states have authorized the punishment even for nonviolent offenses. More than a punishment serving purposes of retribution, crime control, and public safety, and beyond the symbolic functions of life without parole sentencing in U.S. culture and politics, life without parole is a lived experience for more than 50,000 prisoners in the United States. Life without parole’s increasing significance in the United States points to the need for further research on the subject—including studies that directly focus on how race and racial prejudice factor in life without parole sentencing, studies that investigate the proximate causes of life without parole sentences at the state and local level, and studies that examine the similarities and differences between life without parole, the death penalty, and de facto forms of imprisonment until death.

Article

Faye S. Taxman and Alex Breno

Alternatives to incarceration are more than options, they have evolved into sentences of their own accord. Originally, probation and prison were the two major sentences; however, the concept of intermediate or graduated sanctions emerged in the 1980s and evolved throughout the 1990s. While alternatives to incarceration were considered options, they are now recognized as intermediate sanctions, graduated sanctions, and just plain sentencing options. This emergence occurred during the time that probation-plus-conditions sentences spiked, so that the average probationer now has over 17 standard conditions. With Justice Reinvestment Initiatives as a national effort to reduce the impact of mass incarceration policies, the JRI policy effort the has served to legitimize sentences that used to be considered “alternatives” by incorporating risk/need assessments, legislation to reduce sentence lengths and incarceration sentences, and changes in practices to address noncompliant probationers and parolees. Here, a new conceptual model is proposed that integrates sentencing options with results from a risk and need assessment depending on various types of liberty restrictions. Given the need to reduce prison overcrowding, there is an even further need to examine how different sentencing options can be used for different type of individuals.

Article

Risk is a pervasive feature of contemporary life, and has become a key feature of penal policy, systems of punishment, and criminal justice services across a number of the Anglophone jurisdictions. Risk as an approach to calculating the probability of “danger” or “hazard” has its roots in the mercantile trade of the 16th century, growing in significance over the intervening centuries until it pervades both the social and economic spheres of everyday life. Actuarialism, that is the method of statistically calculating and aggregating risk data, has similar roots, steeped in the probability calculations of the insurance industry with 20th-century extension into the arenas of social welfare and penality. Within criminal justice one of the first risk assessment tools was the parole predictor designed by Burgess in 1928. Since then we have seen a burgeoning of risk assessment tools and actuarial risk practices across the penal realm, although the extent to which penality is totally risk based is disputed. Claims for a New Penology centered on risk have been much debated, and empirical evidence would tend toward more cautious claims for such a significant paradigm shift. Prevention and responsibilization are often seen as core themes within risk-focused penality. Risk assessment is used not only to assess and predict future offending of current criminals, but also to enable early identification of future criminals, “high crime” areas, and those in need of early interventions. The ethics, accuracy, and moral justification for such preventive strategies have been extensively debated, with concerns expressed about negative and discriminatory profiling; net-widening; over targeting of minority groups especially for selective incarceration; and more recently criticisms of risk-based pre-emption or “pre-crime” targeting, particularly of ethnic minorities. Responsibilization refers to the techniques of actuarial practices used to make persons responsible for their own risk management, and for their own risk decisions throughout the life course. In respect of offenders this is best expressed through corrective programs focused on “right thinking” and re-moralizing offenders toward more desirable social ends. Those offenders who are “ripe for re-moralization” and who present a level of risk that can be managed within the community can avoid custody or extended sentencing. Those who are not, and who present the highest levels of risk, are justifiably selected for risk-based custodial sentences. Such decision-making not only requires high levels of predictive accuracy, but is also fraught with severe ethical challenges and moral choices, not least about the desired balance between risks, rights, and freedoms.

Article

Kathryn L. Schwaeble and Jody Sundt

The United States is unique in its reliance on incarceration. In 2018 the United States had the largest prison population in the world—more than 2.1 million people—and incarcerated 655 per 100,000 residents, the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. public also holds more punitive attitudes in comparison to citizens of other Western, developed countries. For example, when presented with the same description about a hypothetical criminal event, Americans consistently prefer longer sentences compared to residents of other countries. Attitudes about the death penalty are also instructive. Although international support for the death penalty has declined dramatically over time, the majority of Americans are still in favor of capital punishment for certain crimes. In comparison, Great Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, and only 45% of its citizens continue to support capital punishment. This raises an important question: Can understanding the will of the public help explain how governments respond to crime? The answer to this question is more complicated than expected upon first consideration. The United States generally starts from a more punitive stance than other countries, in part because it experiences more violent crime but also because Americans hold different moral and cultural views about crime and punishment. U.S. public officials, including lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors, are responsive to trends in public attitudes. When the public mood became more punitive during the 1990s, for example, U.S. states universally increased the length of prison sentences and expanded the number of behaviors punishable by incarceration. Similarly, the public mood moderated in the United States toward the end of the 2000s, and states began reducing their prison populations and supporting sentencing reform. It is also true, however, that public officials overestimate how punitive the public is while citizens underestimate how harsh the justice system is. Moreover, the public supports alternatives to tough sentences including prevention, treatment, and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for juveniles and nonviolent offenders. Thus public opinion about punishment is multifaceted and complex, necessitating the exploration of many factors to understand it. Looking at public attitudes about punishment over time, across culture and societies, and in a variety of ways can help explain why social responses to crime change and why some people or groups of people are more punitive than others. Two ideas are helpful in organizing motivations for punishment. First, public support for punishment may be motivated by rational, instrumental interests about how best to protect public safety. Public concern about crime is a particularly important influence on trends in the public mood, but fear of crime and victimization are inconsistently related to how individuals feel about punishment. Second, attitudes about punishment are tied to expressive desires. Attitudes are influenced by culture and moral beliefs about how to respond to harm and violations of the law. Thus attitudes about punishment are relevant in understanding how the public thinks about the problem of crime, as how people think and feel about crime influences what they think and feel should be done about it.

Article

Margaret Colgate Love

Executive clemency has a rich history in the United States, both as an agent of justice and as a tool of politics. A presidential power to pardon was included in Article II of the Constitution, and all but one of the state constitutions provides for a clemency mechanism. States have established a variety of ways to manage and sometimes limit a governor’s exercise of the constitutional pardoning power, but the president’s power has remained unlimited by law. Until quite recently, clemency played a fully operational part in both federal and state justice systems, and the pardoning power was used regularly and generously to temper the harsh results of a criminal prosecution. Presidents also used their power to calm and unify the country after a period of strife, and to further policy goals when legislative solutions fell short. But in modern times unruly clemency’s justice-enhancing role has been severely diminished, initially because reforms in the legal system made it less necessary, but later because of theoretical and practical objections to its regular use. A reluctance on the part of elected officials to take political risks, as well as clemency-related controversies, have further eroded clemency’s legitimacy. As a result, in most U.S. jurisdictions clemency now plays a limited role, and the public regards its exercise with suspicion. There are only about a dozen states in which clemency operates as an integral part of the justice system, in large part because its exercise is protected from political pressures by constitutional design. At the same time, the need for an effective clemency mechanism has never been greater, particularly in the federal system, because of lengthy mandatory prison sentences and the lifelong collateral civil consequences of conviction. It appears unlikely that an unregulated and unrestrained executive power will ever be restored to its former justice-enhancing role, so that those concerned about fairness and proportionality in criminal punishments must engage in the more demanding work of democratic reform.

Article

Marian R. Williams

The death penalty has long been a source of debate and is perhaps the most litigated sentence in the United States. Arguments for the use of the death penalty point to “just deserts” or retribution, while arguments against its use point to its implementation, including how the death penalty is administered (e.g., via electrocution, lethal injection), the types of offenses that are eligible for the death penalty (e.g., murder, rape, treason), and the offenders who are sentenced to death (e.g., males, minorities). This latter concern is the subject of much research, to the extent that a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have addressed this research, especially in the cases Furman v. Georgia (1972) and McCleskey v. Kemp (1987). Research has indicated that those who are sentenced to death share common characteristics, including gender, minority status, social class, geography, and victim similarities. Overwhelmingly, research has noted that, in general, those who kill white victims are the most likely to receive a death sentence, particularly black offenders who kill white victims. Also, males are more likely to receive a death sentence than females, low-income individuals are more likely to receive a death sentence than higher-income individuals, and committing a capital offense in a handful of counties in the United States increases the likelihood of a death sentence. It is difficult to determine in most cases the reasons for this disparity. Outright discrimination by prosecutors, judges, and/or juries is a possibility, but the court system has made it extremely difficult for offenders to prove discrimination in their individual cases. Some researchers argue that the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities and the poor, by enforcing laws more forcefully in their neighborhoods and requiring financial resources to defend oneself (e.g., bail, defense attorneys). Regardless of the reason for disparate treatment in individual cases, the fact that disparate treatment exists is concerning in a country whose constitution emphasizes due process and equal protection under law.

Article

Sentencing is a complex task that involves judicial officers imposing sentences in the first instance and deciding appeals from those judges in certain circumstances. Both trial and appellate courts are usually invested with some discretion as to the nature and quantum of sentence that may be imposed. Appellate jurisdiction varies widely between countries reflecting disparate approaches to discretion, differences in the grounds of appeal, in the deference paid to trial judges and the role of prosecution in the appellate process. While most jurisdictions give defendants the right to appeal against sentence, they differ in the ability of prosecuting authorities to appeal against sentence. In some jurisdictions there is considerable asymmetry between defendants’ and prosecution’s appellate rights. Historically, defendants’ rights of appeal preceded, and have been more extensive those of the prosecution, and traditionally, the balance has been tilted in favor of defendants. However, in a number of jurisdictions, this imbalance has been questioned. The principal arguments against prosecution appeals have centered on the concept of double jeopardy, which has long applied in substantive criminal procedure. Since the early 1980s the analogy with substantive double jeopardy has been questioned or rejected as has the double jeopardy principle itself. Justifications for the principle such as the anxiety and distress suffered by the defendant, the need for finality, the possibility of double punishment, and the abuse of power have all been re-assessed. The case for equal or symmetrical rights rests on the basis that the law requires that error, whether in favor of the defendant or the prosecution, should be corrected as a matter of justice. A balanced appellate process can ensure consistency in, and the adequacy of, sentencing standards, provide guidance to sentencing judges, and increase victims’ and public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Article

American responses to white-collar crime, especially corporate wrongdoing, passed a turning point in 1991 with the enactment of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations, which adopted a “carrot and stick” approach to sentencing corporate offenders, including big incentives for companies introducing compliance programs. In the 2000s, this approach was enhanced by the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 and the Thompson memo of 2003. In addition to the effects of the Thompson memo, federal prosecutors, learning from the fate of Arthur Andersen, came increasingly to rely on deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) and non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) after 2005. However, the Yates memo issued in September 2015 may change Department of Justice policy on corporate wrongdoing dramatically, particularly regarding investigation and prosecution of individuals. In thinking about and conceptualizing legal and political responses to white-collar crime, two main actors are meaningful: the corporation and the individual. Today, a corporation is criminally liable under the respondeat superior doctrine in federal criminal law, and corporate offenders are sentenced under the Organizational Sentencing Guidelines, which provide for fines, restitution, and probation as possible criminal penalties. In recent years, around 150–200 organizations have been sentenced under the Sentencing Guidelines annually. An individual white-collar criminal may be personally liable for their unlawful acts even if the corporation itself is convicted too. Individuals may be convicted absent any showing of mens rea in rare cases (strict liability crime and “willful blindness”). In the last decade, more than 8,000 individuals were prosecuted and convicted, for around a 90% conviction rate. One effect of the Yates memo may be to shift the main target of legal and political response to white-collar crime from the corporation to the individual. New policies under the Yates memo also come with new problems, for instance, that companies may lose incentive to introduce a compliance program or may look for scapegoats to escape prosecution themselves.