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September 21, 2016

"Assessing Time Served" and the deeply under-theorized problems of criminal history

Patrick Woods has this effective and important new article now available via SSRN titled "Assessing Time Served."  Here is the abstract (which will be followed by a few comments I have about this topic):

This article examines the utility of a new way of determining when increased punishment should be imposed pursuant to “three strikes” laws or other recidivist enhancements. In the past two years, Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have each considered criminal justice reform measures that would use the length of time an offender spent incarcerated as a proxy for the seriousness of his earlier criminal conduct.  While this reform seems sound at first glance, the article ultimately concludes that its incorporation into current state and federal sentencing laws must be done carefully, if at all, and that doing so now may be premature.

The article compares this new “time served” approach with the current methods of determining the severity of the punishment imposed upon an offender for his prior crime.  Current federal and state laws assess the seriousness of prior punishment using either the maximum statutory penalty — irrespective of the real sentence — or the sentence announced in court by the judge — even if only a small fraction of that sentence was actually served before the defendant was released.  Compared with these methods, determining the severity of a prior punishment using a “time served” measure seems to be an improvement.

Real problems, however, lurk just below the surface.  The article discusses in detail significant challenges with records gathering, defining the term of incarceration, and using the metric in a way that is consistent with due process guarantees.  It suggests how the metric might be employed to minimize each of these concerns, but also concludes that the condition of state and local incarceration records may make use of the metric in the near future impracticable.

This article effectively highlights some of the practical challenges of using time actually served in prison as a metric for recidivist sentencing enhancements, and these practical challenges must be considered against the backdrop of the host of other practical difficulties federal courts have experienced in using other metrics in application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and guideline assessments of criminal history.  Moreover, as the title of this post hints,  I think modern criminal justice theorists and scholars ought to be working a lot more on what the author calls the "philosophical underpinnings" of recidivist sentencing enhancements. (The author usefully brackets this issue because his fundamental project in this article is not conceptual.)  In many ways, I think the "war on drug" has had its biggest impact on modern incarceration through such recidivist enhancements, and I have long thought that the "philosophical underpinnings" of such enhancements can and should be greatly influenced by the types (and especially the motives) of prior offenses.

September 21, 2016 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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