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January 20, 2009

Is it time now to get serious again about a Booker fix (or even an SRA fix)?

In the immediate wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Booker, there was much talk and debate about possible legislative "fixes" to the new sentencing system created by the Booker advisory guideline remedy.  As detailed in this post from fall 2006, the Booker fix buzz even found expression in the introduction of a Bookerfix bill by then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.  That bill, HR 6254, proposed what was then known as the "topless guidelines" fix to Booker, and the bill that is formally called the "Sentencing Fairness and Equity Restoration Act of 2006." 

Though there seemed to be a serious possibility that a Booker fix proposal might have legs when the Republicans still controlled Congress, the reality of divided government after the 2006 election quickly ended serious talk of a Booker fix.  In addition, because circuit courts were still rigorously reviewing (and often reversing) below-guideline sentences, the full import and impact of the Booker ruling remained somewhat muted at least until the Supreme Court's decisions in Gall and Kimbrough in December 2007.  And by that time, the Department of Justice was in a bit of policy disarray in the wake of the departure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (who had been an advocate of a Booker fix).

As of this afternoon, there is no longer divided government in Washington DC.  Democrats now control both houses of Congress and the White House.  And, with lots of new personnel with new energy and perspectives in the Justice Department (as detailed here at The BLT blog), it may be time to start thinking not just days and weeks ahead, but also years and decades ahead, concerning the federal system of crime and punishment.

Notably, this past Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Mistretta v. United States, the Supreme Court's decision that gave constitutional blessing to the institutional structure of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA).  As noted here last week, Booker has now been the law of the land for four years, and the Booker remedy has made even more difficult to make a crisp and sober assessment of whether the entire federal sentencing structure is working effectively. 

Add all this up, and maybe it is time to start talking about not just a Booker fix, but about a possible revision of the entire structure and content of the SRA.  After all, we have leaded a lot about sentencing law and policy over the last quarter-century, and the size of the federal criminal justice system has grown enormously during this period.  Perhaps, as we get really serious about fixing federal programs and policies that do not work, we ought to consider whether the entire SRA (and/or the Booker remedy) comprising a federal system in need of fixing.

January 20, 2009 at 05:56 PM | Permalink

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