Federal sentencing law is in the midst of a period of profound change. In 1984, responding to concerns about excessive judicial discretion in sentencing, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines), a complex and mandatory schedule of federal criminal sentences based on a multitude of offense- and offender-specific factors. The Guidelines were introduced in 1987 and governed federal sentencing for nearly twenty years. But in 2005, the Supreme Court held that the Guidelines, by requiring judges instead of juries to find facts that could increase a defendant’s sentence, violated the Sixth Amendment. The Court’s remedy was to render the Guidelines advisory only—a starting point but not necessarily the endpoint for sentencing decisions. Over the past several years, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have had to answer a range of questions about how the new advisory Guideline system would work in practice. Among the most consequential were the procedural question of how a district court should apply the now-advisory Guidelines, and the substantive question of whether a court could vary from the Guidelines on the basis of a policy disagreement with the Guidelines themselves rather than the circumstances of an individual defendant. The Supreme Court answered these two crucial questions in the Gall and Kimbrough cases in December 2007, yet these two decisions seemed to talk past each other in terms of sentencing procedure. Kimbrough authorized policy-based variances. Gall instructed courts how to apply the advisory
Guidelines in individual cases. But neither case explained how or when in the sentencing process courts should apply the policy-based variances the Court had just authorized. The result has been a lack of procedural uniformity among district courts applying policy-based variances, with most courts mingling policy and individualized considerations without specifying the role of each factor in determining sentences. Most courts have not even acknowledged, much less attempted to bridge, the gap between the substantive sentencing considerations authorized in Kimbrough and the procedural roadmap laid out in Gall. Academic discourse has likewise left this issue unaddressed.
This Article urges courts to reconcile Kimbrough and Gall by adding an analytical step to the sentencing process through which courts can explicitly apply policy considerations separately from, and prior to, individualized considerations. The blending of policy- and individual-based factors in sentencing adversely affects both the fairness of individual sentences and the development of the Sentencing Guidelines themselves. When courts blend different types of variances together, it is more difficult for them to exercise fully each type of discretion available under the advisory Guideline regime. Additionally, the Sentencing Commission relies on a continuing dialogue with district courts to fulfill its perpetual responsibility of refining the Guidelines based on empirical data and national experience; a clear articulation of courts’ grounds for variance, therefore, provides vital information about how the Guidelines can be improved. The creation of an independent analytical step will ensure faithfulness to Kimbrough and due consideration of each facet of the sentencing court’s discretion. The result will be a sentencing process that is more precise, more transparent, and ultimately fairer.