Is anyone out there listening?

Searching for administrative sentencing justice

From Punch and Jurists

The Eighth Circuit published a decision - U.S. v. Alatorre, 207 F.3d 1078 (8th Cir 2000) - in which it affirmed a 262-month sentence for a 21-year-old Mexican citizen convicted of a drug crime. The only noteworthy aspect of the decision was Judge Bright's concurring opinion in which he decried that sentence "as a waste of time, money and more importantly, the adult life of a young man." Of course, those in favor of the present prison system happily welcome the young adult prisoners who spend the best years of their lives in prison working for as little as 26 cents an hour for the Prison Industrial Complex.

In support of his position that the lengthy sentences mandated by the federal sentencing guidelines are "unfair and irrational," Judge Bright quoted at length from a recent law review article, "Your Cheatin' Heart(land): The Long Search for Administrative Sentencing Justice", 2 Buffalo Crim.L.Rev., 723, 723, 726 (1999), by Professors Marc L. Miller and Ronald F. Wright. The professors wrote:

"It is hard to know where to begin in describing the disaster that has become federal sentencing reform over the past twenty years. This disaster is all the more disheartening because the reform started with so much promise. Few reform efforts-especially in the area of criminal justice, and especially in the federal system-have had as much hope or thought at their core.

"However, the sentencing guidelines that emerged from the new administrative process have been one of the great failures at law reform in U.S. history.

"The collapse was quick, and it has become difficult to defend the current system as the reasoned and principled system we believe Congress and reformers envisioned. The current guidelines are widely hated and in many ways dysfunctional. The expert agency that creates and monitors the guidelines-the U.S. Sentencing Commission-has morphed into an ineffectual caricature of an administrative agency.

"Rather than achieving honest, wise or equal sentencing, the primary effects of the guidelines (albeit in conjunction with other developments) have been to occupy increasing portions of the federal judicial workload and to raise the analysis of probation officers above the arguments of lawyers and the reasoning of judges. Additional effects include shifting the type of offenders in the federal system, transporting offenders from state to federal systems, and pouring offenders into federal prisons for longer and longer periods.

"How could such a thoughtful effort go so terribly wrong?"


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