Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts

By in Judicial System on March 23, 2013

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For two centuries, federal judges exercised wide discretion in criminal sentencing. This changed in 1987, when a hopelessly complex bureaucratic apparatus was imposed on the federal courts. Though termed Sentencing “Guidelines,” the new sentencing rules are mandatory. Reformers hoped that the Sentencing Guidelines would address inequities in sentencing. The Guidelines have failed to achieve this goal, according to Kate Stith and José Cabranes, and they have sacrificed comprehensibility and common sense.

Fear of Judging is the first full-scale history, analysis, and critique of the new sentencing regime. The authors show that the present system has burdened the courts, dehumanized the sentencing process, and, by repressing judicial discretion, eroded the constitutional balance of powers. Eschewing ideological or politically oriented critiques of the Guidelines and offering alternatives to the current system, Stith and Cabranes defend a vision of justice that requires judges to perform what has traditionally been considered their central task—exercising judgment.

One thought on “Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts

  1. 1
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A neglected topic subjected to incisive scrutiny, February 21, 2011
    This review is from: Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts (Paperback)

    Kate Stith’s and Jose Cabrane’s Fear of Judging addresses an undertreated topic regarding how we the public set the standard for what is appropriate punishment for criminal offenders. The book examines the bipartisan politics that led to the establishment of the Sentencing Commission and the Commission’s overreaching zeal to raise criminal incarceration penalties under the unachievable guise of making punishment equal to all criminals with matching degrees of culpability. The book demonstrates how parity of sentencing remains as elusive as ever while the net effect of the Sentencing Commission guidelines has been to merely augment the amount of time criminals serve and to hinder involved judges from making responsible additions or subtractions in sentencing decisions that would be in the best interests of all. Sentencing commissions guidelines attempt to reduce the judicial process to mathematical abstractions and yet the abstractions remain far too vague and abstruse to allow for any degree of equitable judgment. The book reduces the Sentencing Commission’s pronouncements as severely interfering with the process of the fair establishment of criminal sentences.

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