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June 21, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel finds way above-guideline (stat-max) sentence to be "not sufficiently" justified

As long-time readers know, I have long been troubled be the fact that the Booker-created reasonableness standard of review has been pretty toothless as a check on extreme federal sentences. But because so few sentences have been found unreasonable, any such decision is noteworthy, and so here I highlight a new Seventh Circuit panel decision handed down last week in US v. Jones, No. 19-1644 (7th Cir. June 19, 2020) (available here). The 12-page ruling is worth reading in full, and here is how the opinion starts and one notable substantive paragraph:

In 1998, a federal jury convicted Jerry Jones of two carjackings, an armed bank robbery, and using firearms during those crimes of violence.  The district court sentenced him to 840 months in prison. Twenty years later, the district court vacated its original sentence and ordered resentencing because Jones no longer qualified as a career offender under the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

At resentencing, Jones’s effective Guidelines range was 348–390 months.  The district court deviated from the Guidelines and once again sentenced Jones to 840 months in prison. That was an increase of 450 months, approximately 215% above the high end of Jones’s Guidelines range.  Jones now appeals his sentence.  Because the district court did not sufficiently justify the extent of its deviation from the Guidelines, we vacate its judgment and remand for resentencing....

Here, the district court acknowledged the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, noting that Jones’s co-defendants—“with similar records [and] similar conduct” — had received sentences of 675 months and 728 months.  Notwithstanding the three defendants’ similar records and similar conduct, Jones received a sentence 165 months longer than one co-defendant and 112 months longer than the other.  The court did not explain why it singled Jones out for different treatment.  Quite the contrary, it synthesized the offenders and their offenses, observing they had “similar records [and] similar conduct.”  It was therefore incumbent on the court to specify what warranted Jones’s sentence disparity.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).  Without such a justification, and because the court did not sentence Jones within the Guidelines range, we cannot assure ourselves that the court sufficiently considered the interest in consistency between similarly situated defendants.

No matter how long I follow the federal sentencing system, I will continue to be awed (in a bad way) by the scale of sentences that get handed out in seemingly run-of-the-mill cases. Here, after co-defendants receive sentences of over 55 years and 60 years, the judge decided that he should round up to an even 70 years for Mr. Jones (meaning that, even with time off for good behavior in prison, he could be not released until age 95).  I am pleased that this Seventh Circuit panel is now demanding a more meaningful justification for such a sentence, but I am displeased that such extreme sentences can be deemed justifiable in part because they are just not all that unusual in the federal system.

June 21, 2020 at 06:02 PM | Permalink


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