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June 22, 2010

Seventh Circuit finds inadequate district court's sparse justification for way below-guideline sentence

The Seventh Circuit in US v. Brown, No. 09-1028 (7th Cir. June 22, 2010) (available here), provides district judges with yet another important reminder that they need to explain fully the bases for their sentencing judgments. Here is how the opinion in Brown gets started:

When Rodney Brown pleaded guilty to distributing more than five grams of crack cocaine, it looked as if he was about to go to prison for a long time.  Brown had a prior drug conviction, and so he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months’ imprisonment.  To make matters worse, his two previous convictions for aggravated assault qualified him as a career offender for purposes of § 4B1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, and this bumped up his recommended guidelines sentence to 262-327 months’ imprisonment.

At the sentencing hearing, the district court limited itself to making a few negative remarks about Brown’s character and capacity for change.  It then surprised the parties by sentencing Brown to the lowest possible point available to it, the 120-month mandatory minimum, a full 142 months below the low end of the guidelines range.  In its terse explanation of the sentence, the district court mentioned only Brown’s age (40 years old), the short length of his previous state sentences, and the conditions of his upbringing.

The government has appealed the sentence.  Although a sentence so far below the recommended guidelines range lies within the court’s power, and may even have been justified in this case, the record is too spare to support that conclusion at this point.  We therefore vacate Brown’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

In the weeks after Booker was handed down, I highlighted in this post that district judges should "Always remember to show your work."  More than five years after Booker, it seems that some district judges are still struggling to understand that this is classic suggestion for math class remains very important for modern federal sentencing.

June 22, 2010 at 04:52 PM | Permalink


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At least the Seventh Circuit made it clear that the sentence may well be justified in this case, something most (but not all) members of the Eighth Circuit would not include in identical circumstances.

Posted by: nan | Jun 23, 2010 9:23:39 AM

I don't necessarily disagree with the holding that the district court failed to adequately explain
its rationale for its sentencing decision. However, the opinion highlights a concern of mine.

The Court's jurisprudence is just, quite simply, inconsistent. The Court says the district court can't presume a GL sentence is correct. But, the Court also says if a district court imposes a non-GL sentence, then greater "justification" is required.

Answer me this: How is requiring a district court to provide greater justification for a non-GL sentence not a presumption in favor of a GL sentence in the district court??? If I have to explain why I did "x", when I wouldn't have to explain myself if I didn't do "x", then it is presumed that I not do "x."

IMO, all (within-GL and non-GL) sentences must be supported by explanation and significant justification. If not, they should be reversed as procedurally unreasonable. Only having such a requirement for non-GL sentences, which is illustrated in this opinion, is nothing more than a presumption in the district court for the Guidelines.

The Court needs to clear up this inconsistency.

Posted by: DEJ | Jun 23, 2010 1:43:35 PM

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