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Two Ways To Think About Punishment

The Wrong Way To Think About Punishment

When I meet people at a cocktail party, or talk to kids of elementary-school age, and they learn I’m a federal criminal defense lawyer, I’m often asked something like, “How much time do you get for bank robbery?” or, “What’s the punishment for mortgage fraud?”

The assumption is that there is a menu of punishments for crimes – if you do X, you get Y.

127450_the_stocks.jpgThere is a version of this that is a bit more fine grained. It isn’t a question of whether you commit mortgage fraud, but of how much money you take from the fraud. If you do X, with Y harm, you get Z.

Some bank robberies are worse than others. “What’s the punishment for committing one of the bad ones?” the guy at the cocktail party may ask.

Looking at the federal sentencing guidelines, you can see the fullest expression of this more refined view. The guidelines are a loving catalog of how bad each crime is, considering each feature and sub-feature of the criminal conduct. And there’s a chart at the end of the book that will tell you how much time you get for each.

This is, I think, the wrong way to think about punishment.

The Right Way To Think About Punishment

Happily, the Third Circuit recently explained the right way to think about punishment (the quotations are from the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Pepper) in United States v. Salinas-Cortez:

Appropriate sentences can only be imposed when sentencing courts “consider the widest possible breadth of information about a defendant.” Id. at 1240. It is only then that we can “ensure[] that the punishment will suit not merely the offense but the individual defendant.” Id. As we have previously explained, the now advisory Guideline range is but one of many factors that must be considered if a court is to properly impose a sentence that is tailored to the offender rather than one that focuses only on the offense.

It is remarkably difficult to get a federal prosecutor to ask for a sentence below the federal sentencing guidelines. Some offices have a blanket policy against such requests. Others simply don’t do them. The effect is that when a person is punished, his crime overshadows who he is as a person.

(For a nice discussion of the role prosecutors play in this, see this piece at Main Justice from Mary Price at Families Against Mandatory Minimums.)

The Third Circuit explained,

It is only by ensuring that the individual circumstances of the defendant are not obliterated by the offense that an individual’s potential to successfully rejoin society is maximized and the interest of public safety advanced. Thus, “[i]t has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue.” Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 113 (1996). This bedrock principle predates enactment of the Guidelines.

It’s a beautiful sentiment in Koon, that every criminal case is a reflection of our shared humanity and the ways in which humans can falter morally.

It’s also a view rejected by the sentencing guidelines. Chapter 5H. Chapter 5H starts with a discussion of how much of what matters to a person is either a prohibited characteristic or not ordinarily relevant to sentencing.

Admittedly, Congress has required that the sentencing guidelines take this view (see 28 U.S.C. 994(d) and (d)). Still, it’s wholly inconsistent with the view the Supreme Court expressed in Koon and reaffirmed in Pepper, that sentencing should rely, fundamentally, on a consideration of who the person is who committed the offense.

Mr. Salinas-Cortez

Mr. Salinas-Cortez was sentenced to 156 months in a federal prison after he was convicted of playing a role in a cocaine distribution conspiracy. He appealed, arguing that the district court did not adequately consider his argument that he was a minor player in the conspiracy.

The Third Circuit remanded the case for the district court to more fully consider Mr. Salinas-Cortez’s argument that he was a minor player, and should receive a lower sentencing guidelines range under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.2.

The district court, on remand, considered Mr. Salinas-Cortez’s argument, then rejected it. Mr. Salinas-Cortez argued that he had made strides toward rehabilitating himself. The district court did not believe that it had the authority to consider Mr. Salinas-Cortez’s work to make himself a better person. The court imposed, again, a sentence of 156 months.

A week later, the Supreme Court decided Pepper, which holds that a district court can and should consider rehabilitation when imposing a sentence after remand.

The Third Circuit, therefore, remanded for the district court to resentence Mr. Salinas-Cortez in light of his rehabilitation after his offense.