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April 11, 2024

Call (again) for papers: Federal Sentencing Reporter issue on "Booker at 20"

In this prior post a couple of weeks ago, I set out a call for papers for a forthcoming issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter to note (and celebrate? criticize?) the federal sentencing system's 20 years of functioning under the rules created in Booker.  I plan to repost this call every few weeks until the deadline thoward the end of May.  So:M_ucpfsr_29_4_cover

The US Supreme Court's January 2005 decision in United States v. Booker ushered in a new era for federal sentencing.  Through a dual set of dueling 5-4 opinions, Booker made the guidelines “effectively advisory,” rather than “mandatory,”  after the Court concluded that judicial fact-finding to increase mandatory guideline ranges violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.  The Court’s opinion essentially invited Congress to rework the federal sentencing system in the wake of this ruling, but the Booker advisory guideline system has proved remarkably durable: the mandatory guideline system was operational for 16 years, but we are now approaching the 20th anniversary of Booker and the advisory guideline system it created.

Though constitutionally and functionally a sea change, the Booker ruling has seemingly had a relatively limited effect on sentence severity and reliance on imprisonment in the federal system.  Data from the US Sentencing Commission reveal that in fiscal year 2003, the last full year of data before the disruptions of Booker and its predecessor ruling in Blakely v. Washington, just over 69,000 persons were sentenced in federal courts, with nearly 87% receiving a prison term and with the average prison term being 48 months.  Data from fiscal year 2023, the latest full year of federal sentencing data assembled by the Commission, indicate that just over 64,000 persons were sentenced in federal courts with nearly 93% receiving a prison term and with the average prison term being 52 months.  The relative consistency of federal sentencing outcomes in the Booker era is striking, especially given that Congress enacted two notable sentence-reducing statutes in this period through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the First Step Act of 2018.

Still, sentencing below guideline ranges has increased significantly in the Booker era, and lawyers and sentencing judges now place greater emphasis on the statutory sentencing factors of 18 USC § 3553(a) and relatively less emphasis on guideline particulars.  Data from FY 2023 indicate that only 42% of sentences are imposed within the guideline range, though the same Commission data reveal that the guidelines continue to exert a kind of gravitational pull on sentence lengths even though not regularly followed.  And, of course, Booker did not directly impact the force of statutory mandatory minimums, which still shape and cast shadows on plea bargaining and other aspects of the federal sentencing process.  

Nearly 20 years have passed since Booker, and the editors of the Federal Sentencing Reporter are eager to invite judges, lawyers, other sentencing practitioners, legal academics, and sentencing researchers, to share thoughts on “Booker at 20” for publication in an early 2025 FSR issue.  FSR commentaries for this issue could tackle foundational issues (such as the Court’s ruling in Booker and follow-up cases), discrete application issues (such as why certain advisory guidelines are more likely to be followed or ignored), institutional concerns (such as how Congress and the Commission and the Justice Department have responded to Booker), or any other topic of interest or concern to modern federal sentencing policy and practice.  FSR welcomes commentaries from all perspectives, including insights from sentencing experiences (with or without guidelines) in the states and other countries.  Everyone with an informed interest in sentencing law and practice is encouraged to submit a commentary.

FSR articles are typically brief — 2000 to 5000 words, though they can run longer — with light use of citations in the form of endnotes.  The pieces are designed to be read by busy stakeholders, including lawyers, judges, scholars, and legislators (as well as, of course, members and staff of the US Sentencing Commission).  Priority will be given to drafts submitted by May 28, 2024, and later submissions will be considered as space permits.  Submissions should be sent electronically to [email protected] with a clear indication of the author and the author’s professional affiliation.

April 11, 2024 at 08:32 AM | Permalink


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