Rules, Standards, Sentencing, and the Nature of Law
Sentencing law and practice in the United States can be characterized as an argument about rules and standards. Whereas in the decades prior to the 1980s when sentencing was largely a discretionary activity governed only by broad sentencing standards, a sentencing reform movement in the 1980s transformed sentencing practice through the advent of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum provisions. As a result, sentencing became far less standard-like and far more rule-like. Although reform proponents believed that this “rulification” of sentencing would reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities and enhance justice, it is far from clear that these goals were achieved. Indeed, the debate between sentencing reformers and their critics is a paradigmatic illustration of the limits of relying upon modifications of legal form to enhance substantive justice. Building upon the work of legal theorists who have considered the rules versus standards conundrum, this article uses sentencing law as a lens to view some of the fundamental perplexities that bedevil law’s grander aspirations—for determinacy, fairness, even coherence itself. Because, it is argued, refinements in legal form will never achieve the substantive goals to which law strives, the Essay urges a turn away from formal equality and toward a conception of sentencing justice that is centered on process values such as respect for those affected by sentencing decisions, concern that all voices be adequately heard, and decision making that reflects the considered moral judgment of the decision maker.