Federal judge argues for sentencing reform, guidelines overhaul

United States District Court Judge Jed Rakoff is an outspoken jurist on many things, seldom seeming to take a roundabout way with words when making a straightforward comment seems more to the point.

In recent years, Rakoff hasn’t minced words on his views regarding the federal sentencing guidelines ushered in pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Although a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2005 (United States v. Booker) made the guidelines non-binding on federal judges, the majority of them still issue sentences based upon what Rakoff calls the “fundamental flaws” of the guidelines.

Judge Rakoff seeks sentencing reform, and not just along incremental lines. He thinks the guidelines rely too much on a numbers-only test that he says is often “kind of nuts” and results in irrational and unfair penalties visiting defendants in too many instances, particularly in white collar crime cases.

Here’s one example. Rakoff told an audience last week at an event sponsored by the American Bar Association that a particular criminal charge against a defendant called for an 85-year prison sentence under the guidelines.

“Now that struck me as barbaric, to be frank,” he told his audience. He opted to impose a 3 ½-year term instead.

He has taken some heat for that, with the U.S. Department of Justice calling his sentence in that case “unacceptable.”

Rakoff heartily disagrees with his critics, saying that the guidelines tend to dwell narrowly upon and inflate victims’ losses, which results in upward-skewed prison terms for many defendants that defy logic.

If Rakoff had his way, he would eliminate the guidelines entirely, giving judges total discretion over a number of factors they could weigh in cases, with their rulings being readily open to “robust” review by appellate courts.

Source: Thomson Reuters, “Rakoff says sentencing guidelines should be ‘scrapped,'” Nate Raymond, March 11, 2013