November 01, 2012

Proportionality, Disparity, and Recidivism

By Judge Patti Saris

Last February, the U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing on the state of federal sentencing seven years after the landmark Supreme Court opinion in United States v. Booker (2005).1 At that hearing, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Charles Samuels informed the Commission about the overcrowding of federal prisons: federal prisons are 38 percent over rated capacity and the rate of overcrowding is 53 percent in high-security facilities. Further, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Axelrod stated that, in 2011, the federal prison population grew by over 7,500 prisoners. The number of federal convictions has continued to increase, with 86,201 documented individual federal offender cases in fiscal year 2011, up from 83,946 the year before. Approximately 87 percent received prison sentences. This is not to say that crime rates are up. In a recent letter to the Commission, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that violent crime is at the lowest levels in generations. Further, the DOJ referred to a Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey finding that fewer than 4 million Americans were victims of violent crime in 2010, down from over 10 million in 1991. In light of these statistics, sentencing policy has never been more important.

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