Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The parsimony principle is real

Is prison time appropriate for every supervised-release violation---or for every crime, for that matter? Of course not. One of criminal law's core principles is that "punishment should be proportionate to the offender's wronging and blameworthiness." Robinson, Paul H., Criminal Law’s Core Principles (February 10, 2021) (forthcoming). But courts rarely articulate or explicitly enforce this principle. For a reminder of the key role it plays in federal sentencing, read this Seventh Circuit decision and remember to invoke the parsimony principle at your next sentencing hearing:
Sentences must always conform to the “broad command” of the parsimony principle, which requires that sentences be “‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary to comply with’ the four identified purposes of sentencing: just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” Dean v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1170, 1175 (2017), quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). This principle is especially important in a case like this where the alleged violations were not criminal, the defendant asserted a lack of intent, and there was evidence of reasonable efforts and good faith, putting in question which of the purposes of sentencing apply.

The Supreme Court has observed that prison is not necessarily appropriate for every violation of a condition of release, such as where, as the defendant asserts here, the defendant made bona fide efforts to comply and does not obviously pose a threat to society. Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 668–70 (1983). “The congressional policy in providing for a term of supervised release after incarceration is to improve the odds of a successful transition from the prison to liberty.” Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694, 708–09 (2000). Sending a defendant back to prison for a violation that occurs despite reasonable and good faith efforts to comply may well undermine that transition. 

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