Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Future of Reform

On Wednesday, May 17, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) in partnership with the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School and the Federal Sentencing Reporter (FSR), co-sponsored an event titled “Behind the Bench: The Past, Present, and Future of Federal Sentencing.”

The event, which came on the heels of a Department of Justice memo encouraging stricter charging and sentencing, featured the current acting chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and two former commissioners. The three federal judges discussed sentencing disparities, the proper relationship between the legislative and judicial branches in determining sentencing policy, and opportunities for reform.

“Federal sentencing is an important subject that deserves to be further examined and discussed,” said Scalia Law School dean Henry N. Butler. “We appreciate the opportunity to host such a timely and relevant event with some of the country’s most notable and knowledgeable legal experts.”

The event featured an opening keynote from acting commissioner Judge William Pryor and commentary from CKI’s senior research fellow Vikrant Reddy, as well as from U.S. District Judge of the Southern District of Texas Ricardo Hinojosa, U.S. District Judge of the District of Massachusetts Patti B. Saris, and FSR editor and chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing Steve Chanenson.

Judge Pryor emphasized the need for a sentencing process that yields greater transparency, certainty, and proportional punishments, with fewer unwarranted disparities — part of a proposal he outlined in the February edition of the FSR.

“We are in an unusual time … where there is genuine and sustained bipartisan support for structural sentencing reform,” Pryor said of his vision for modest reductions in sentencing levels for some offenses. “The current administration and others in congress might be attracted to a reform package that reduces mandatory minimum sentencing that accomplishes other goals such as mens rea and asset forfeiture reform when joined with a new system of simpler, presumptive guidelines.”

Judges Hinojosa and Saris agreed that some mandatory minimum sentences should be less severe, noting that socioeconomic factors such as unemployment and school drop-out rates could be identified prior to individuals entering the federal criminal justice system. “We don’t hear enough conversations about how we fix these problems before individuals get into the criminal justice system,” Judge Hinojosa said. “How are they supposed to continue an education? How do they get and keep a job? We should connect with and identify these problems from the start.”

A CKI poll conducted in early April suggests support among conservatives for a number of criminal justice reforms. The findings, which are based on feedback from liberals, moderates, and conservatives who voted in the 2016 presidential election, discovered that 54 percent of Trump voters know someone who is or has been incarcerated. Additionally, 63 percent of Trump voters believe judges should have the freedom to assign alternative forms of punishment.

Audio from the event can be found here.