Posted by Jack Brymer and Ryan Johnson on 2010-10-05

Following an extensive background on federal sentencing, U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bill Pryor suggested state and federal criminal systems not be viewed as different entities, but as complimentary bodies that should utilize each other’s experience for the benefit of the whole.

Speaking to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Students at Cumberland School of Law, of which Judge Pryor formerly was an adjunct professor, Pryor told the student that prior to 1987, federal sentencing was done at the discretion of a judge which was heavily criticized for a number of reasons, including the general unfairness in sentence length issued by “tough” and “soft” judges; as well as the disparities between race and socioeconomic status.

As a result, he suggested, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission, which created the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines. These new rules made judges sentence within a prescribed time frame (i.e. 3-6 months, 10-15 years, etc…). In extreme cases, a judge could depart from the guidelines but he or she had to state an opinion as to why.

In 2005, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Booker, to make mandatory sentencing guidelines strictly advisory which brings back some of the original criticism that sentencing discretion is often inconsistent and arbitrary. Pryor said in his view, two criminals committing the same crime deserve a similar sentence. 

Currently, the United States Sentencing Commission is in charge of research on sentencing guidelines and proposing new ideas to fix the inconsistencies created by Booker. Pryor suggests that the agency could reform the current inconsistency in sentencing guidelines by looking to a basic tenant from our countries founding: federalism.  

Pryor suggests the commission invest time and resource into investigating all 50 states sentencing guidelines. “These 50 ‘laboratories’ are in a better position to monitor criminal law for two main reasons,” he suggested.

First, states administer the bulk of all criminal law, according to Pryor, and are in an excellent position to see how their sentencing guidelines effect rehabilitation, deterrence, etc...

Secondly, he suggested, the states have more incentive to find practical solutions. He noted that the federal system receives nearly unlimited funding while the state systems have to balance their budgets; consequently, because states have to pay for it they have more of a vested interest in creating understandable, fair rules of law to prevent their court systems from backing up and their prisons from overpopulating.

Also, Pryor maintained that each state’s budget permeates everything from how to best utilize its police force to how to rehabilitate and integrate their prisoners upon release. “Sentencing guidelines have a profound effect on, over or under punishing criminals and that directly relates to the effectiveness of their criminal justice system,” he said.

A magna cum laude graduate of the Tulane Law School, Pryor was editor in chief of the Tulane Law Review and later served as a law clerk for Judge John Minor Wisdom of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Following his judicial clerkship, he engaged in a private litigation practice in Birmingham and, for six years, served as an adjunct professor here at Cumberland. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at the University Of Alabama School Of Law

In 1997, Judge Pryor served as Attorney General of Alabama and was the youngest Attorney General in the United States at the time. In 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush appointed him to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Pryor is a member of the Federalist Society

The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of its principles and to further their application through its activities.

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