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This essay takes stock of federal sentencing after 2007, the year of the periphery. On Capitol Hill, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned in the face of widespread criticism over his role in the replacement of several U.S. Attorneys. In the Supreme Court, the trio of Rita v. United States, Gall v. United States, and Kimbrough v. United States clarified and perhaps extended the breadth of license given to district judges in an advisory guideline regime. In contrast to the Supreme Court's sentencing cases, which focus on the allocation of authority between judges and juries, and the bulk of the sentencing literature, which pits prosecutors against judges, the institutional pairing highlighted here is Main Justice versus the districts, with Department of Justice (DOJ) sentencing policies since 2001 considered in the larger context of DOJ efforts to exercise power over U.S. Attorneys' offices. What has often been framed as "judicial discretion" might better be seen as a coordinated exercise in local norm setting – an exercise in which line prosecutors, through charging power and shared control over investments in information gathering (in tandem with agencies) inevitably play a critical role. The extent to which prosecutors will be allowed to explicitly embrace the power they tacitly exercise already, and whether an illusory regime of sentencing uniformity will give way to a real one of collaborative norm articulation and development, remains to be seen. But the suggestion here is that the new sentencing cases may point the way to a healthier federal criminal justice system.


Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Law