Judge stresses human factors in federal sentencing reform at UHLC conference

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The Hon. William K Sessions III,  a U.S. district judge in Vermont and former chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission, outlines the history of sentencing guidelines.

The Hon. William K Sessions III,  a U.S. district judge in Vermont and former chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission, outlines the history of sentencing guidelines.

Melissa Hamilton, a visiting scholar at the Law Center, discusses the preference for imprisonment in the federal criminal justice system while commentators Robert Stabe, assistant U.S. Attorney and a Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division, left, and Brent Newton, Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, listen.

Melissa Hamilton, a visiting scholar at the Law Center, discusses the preference for imprisonment in the federal criminal justice system while commentators Robert Stabe, assistant U.S. Attorney and a Deputy Chiefof the Criminal Division, left, and Brent Newton,Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, listen.

The Federal Sentencing Challenges Post-Booker Symposium closes with a roundtable discussion.

The Federal Sentencing Challenges Post-Booker Symposium closes with a roundtable discussion.

Nov. 22, 2013- The Hon. William K. Sessions III opened a recent University of Houston Law Center symposium on federal sentencing guidelines arguing for greater emphasis on human characteristics, discretion, and flexibility for judges within the guideline structure.

Sessions, a U.S. district judge in Vermont and former chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission, called for reform as keynote speaker of the symposium on “Federal Sentencing Challenges Post-Booker.” His comments were echoed the following day by UHLC visiting scholar Melissa Hamilton who focused on the preference toward imprisonment in the federal criminal justice system during her lecture and the roundtable discussion that closed the symposium. The Criminal Justice Institute and the Houston Law Review hosted the event.

In his address Nov. 14, Sessions stressed the importance of considering factors labeled in current federal sentencing guidelines as “not ordinarily relevant to the determination of whether a sentence should be outside the applicable guideline range” -- factors such as education, vocation, employment, family ties, and community ties.

“This is a human system,” said Sessions said. “If you believe it’s eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth then you don’t consider the human characteristics. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe this is how you handle human beings in a totally human system.”

Sessions began with a history of the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines through Booker to today. Prior to passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Sessions said, offender characteristics were addressed, but a consistent approach to sentencing was not adopted. Judges had complete discretion in sentencing and were not required to explain their reasoning. The Sentencing Reform Act set specific guidelines for sentencing. In 2005, United States v. Booker gave federal judges discretion to vary from the guidelines when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the guidelines were advisory, not mandatory. Critics claimed the decision broadening judicial discretion would result in a wide disparity in sentencing, which statistics tend to bear out today.

Hamilton spoke on the Sentencing Guidelines’ preference for imprisonment over other alternatives. That trajectory started in 1987, Hamilton said, when the sentencing guidelines were formally adopted.

The symposium closed with the roundtable discussion of the future of federal sentencing.

Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, said among reform recommendations discussed were the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and the re-writing of guidelines built around mandatory minimums.

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