Should Sentencing Judges Be Required to Respond to Defendants’ Arguments for Lenience?

I address this question in a new paper I’ve just posted on SSRN entitled “Explaining Sentences.” Here is the gist of the paper. Since 2005, federal judges have had increased discretion to impose sentences below the range prescribed in the federal sentencing guidelines. Since the guidelines ranges are based almost entirely on the aggravating circumstances of the crime, defendants typically argue for below-range sentences based on mitigating personal circumstances (e.g., post-offense rehabilitation, effects of extended incarceration on innocent family members, positive record of military or other community service, mental illness, physical disability, age). Some precedent, perhaps most notably in the Seventh Circuit, indicates that sentencing judges should respond to such arguments even when they choose to impose a guidelines sentence, explaining to defendants why their arguments have been rejected. Other decisions, however, indicate that the sentencing judge need do little or nothing to explain a guidelines sentence. For instance, in Rita v. United States, the Supreme Court seemed to indicate it would suffice if the sentencing judge merely acknowledged the defendant’s arguments at some point somewhere on the record.

I think decisions like the one in Rita are unfortunate. Given what is at stake–often years of a person’s life–it seems a small enough imposition to require district court judges to explain themselves in a more thorough manner. Moreover, a robust explanation requirement may help to counteract the natural tendency of busy judges (as Judge Posner puts it) just “to impose the guidelines sentence and be done with it”–a practice that threatens to undermine the Supreme Court’s rejection of mandatory sentencing guidelines three years ago.

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Who’s Afraid of ProCD?

It’s a prevalent meme in contemporary copyright scholarship that the public domain is being “enclosed” by expansions in copyright law. Scholars point to many examples of this alleged expansion, including term extension, anticircumvention laws, and court decisions rejecting certain attempts to claim fair use. But one widespread source of complaint among copyright scholars is the idea that contracts are somehow being used to expand copyright owners’ rights. And the chief villain in this story is the decision that allegedly started it all, the Seventh Circuit’s own ProCD v. Zeidenberg, authored by Judge Frank Easterbrook.

I should note right off the bat that I am not quite so enamored of form agreements as Judge Easterbrook is. That much I probably share with my fellow copyright specialists. But I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that the case for contracts somehow expanding copyright rights is vastly overstated, and perhaps illusory. ProCD–with the exception of one overlooked wrinkle–is not the threat everyone seems to think it is.

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More From the Seventh Circuit on the Scope of “Crime of Violence”

Following on the heels of yesterday’s post on United States v. Smith, the Seventh Circuit issued another opinion considering the use of prior convictions to enhance a sentence. In United States v. Jennings, the court held that an Indiana conviction for resisting a law enforcement officer could be considered a “crime of violence” for purposes of a career offender enhancement under the federal sentencing guidelines. As I explained yesterday, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Begay v. United States has altered the framework courts must use in determining whether a prior conviction counts as a crime of violence. In Smith, the Seventh Circuit interpreted Begay such that a crime of negligence and recklessness, even though it may result in serious injury, can no longer be considered a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Although Begay (like Smith) involved an ACCA sentence enhancement, Jennings makes clear that the Begay standards also govern sentence enhancements under the career offender guideline. At the same time, Jennings seems to conduct the Begay analysis in a considerably less rigorous manner than Smith.

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