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February 11, 2009

On-the-scene report on the US Sentencing Commission regional hearings in Atlanta

Professor Ronald Wright, who testified Wednesday during the second day of the US Sentencing Commission's regional hearings in Atlanta (background here and here), was kind enough to send along this terrific on-the-scene report of his experiences:

I could not attend the first day of the hearings, which had a full and interesting agenda.  The Day One sessions involved appellate judges, probation officers, defense attorneys, and state and local law enforcement.  Based on my quick perusal of the written comments from Day One (all available at a welcoming table out front), I can especially recommend pages 7-11 from the comments of Greg Forest, the Chief U.S. Probations Officer from the Western District of NC.  

The first panel on Day Two was devoted to four federal trial judges:  Chief Judge Bob Conrad (WD NC), Judge Gregory Presnell (MD FL), Chief Judge Robert Hinkle (ND FL), and Chief Judge William Moore (SD GA).  On the whole, the judges seemed satisfied with the basic structure of the guidelines in the post-Booker world.  They all expressed concerns about some particular provisions that were still creating injustices in particular cases (the child pornography guidelines were mentioned several times), and of course all four judges were critics of mandatory minimum statutes.  Chief Judge Conrad made an eloquent plea for a less active Commission:  invoking an image used by Chief Justice Roberts in Sears, he believes that the Commission should stop pulling the plant out of the ground so often to see if the roots are healthy.  The courts need time to sort out so many recent developments.  

The Commissioners were all engaged and seemed quite interested in the views of the sentencing judges (just as they should be!).  The room itself was deadly: 180 seats, occupied by a crowd ranging between 12 and 16 people, not counting the 5 staffers and 2 sound engineers in the room.  The speakers were certainly not feeding off the energy from the crowd.  

I appeared on the second panel, devoted to the views of academics.  Rod Engen (NC State, Criminology) talked about the need to advocate for smaller prison populations and to collect prosecutor data; Gordon Bazemore (Florida Atlantic, Criminology) talked about restorative justice.  I suggested that the commission should radically de-emphasize its efforts to control judicial discretion and should re-fashion its role as a source of study and information about sentencing practices, both federal and state.  I argued, based on state experience, that judges will reach a natural equilibrium of compliance with guidelines, regardless of the details of the guidelines or the precise standards of appellate review.  

The Commissioners were polite, and asked some very smart follow-up questions.  Still, I don’t think the academic panel spoke to the current mind-set of the Commission.  For reasons that I can certainly understand, the Commissioners seemed more engaged with the judicial suggestions about concrete system improvements than the more removed and less practical agendas of the academics.

So there’s one view of the hotel ballroom for you.  

February 11, 2009 at 09:54 PM | Permalink


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