LAW 534

Sentencing Law and Policy


Criminal Justice, Public Interest Law

Given that over 95% of felony cases are resolved by plea bargaining, sentencing is often the most important aspect of a criminal case. The rise of mandatory and “get tough” sentencing laws during the 1990s has meant that the United States is now the nation with the largest prison population in the world. Yet, sentencing is also an area of law that is currently undergoing significant change, shaped by landmark Supreme Court cases and legislative reforms.

This seminar will examine the history, purpose, law, and administration of criminal sentencing. Using the federal system as an example, students will gain an appreciation of the sentencing process and the complex set of rules, guidelines, and legal doctrine that govern the allocation of punishment in America. Throughout the seminar we will seek to understand the balance of power in sentencing practice between various actors, including legislators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, victims, and probation officers. We will also explore a range of special sentencing topics, including racial, ethnic, and national origin disparities in sentencing and recent “second chance” initiatives that reevaluate long-term sentences.

Students will write three short reaction papers during the semester. In addition, students will write a 12-18 page research paper on a topic to be selected in consultation with the instructor (SAW eligible by instructor’s approval).

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