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U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York has offered an important voice on a wide range of issues in federal practice, typically from the bench. In 2011, for example, he refused to rubber-stamp a $285 million proposed civil settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and banking giant Citigroup. Rakoff recently sounded off from the podium on the current state of federal sentencing. On March 7, as the keynote speaker at the 27th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime in Las Vegas, Rakoff railed against the numerical calculations and formulaic approach that still drives criminal sentencing in federal court: the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

Rakoff said the guidelines represent a set of numbers "drawn from nowhere" that continue to steer most federal judges imposing criminal sentences. He's right. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the congressionally created entity responsible for the guidelines, has never articulated on what basis they equate another $50,000 in loss, the next 40 victims of a scheme, or an additional 20 grams of heroin (each carries a two-level increase in "offense level points" under the guidelines). Rakoff concluded, "Basically, my modest proposal is that they should be scrapped in their entirety."

I, like other academics and (former) federal practitioners, agree in part.


Originally posted online in The Recorder, March 15, 2013. Posted with permission.