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Russell Hebets March 4, 2020

A Trial Is Over

The trial of Harvey Weinstein for multiple sex crimes has ended. Weinstein was acquitted of the most serious charges he faced, first-degree rape and predatory sexual assault, but convicted of rape in the third degree and of criminal sexual act in the first. These convictions entail a prison sentence—to be handed down in Weinstein’s case later this month—of between five and twenty-nine years. This raises a question many people might ask about our criminal justice system: what’s the deal with the wide ranges for prison terms in sentencing guidelines? Shouldn’t instances of the same crime be punished consistently?

The Point of Sentencing Ranges

The short answer to that is no. Sentencing ranges give the justice system the flexibility to consider aggravating or extenuating elements in cases that happen to belong to the same legal class. While a one-size-fits-all approach appeals at first view to our sense of fairness, criminal cases and the defendants involved in them are all different. For example, let’s say we have two defendants, each charged with theft. One of them has been convicted of the same crime twice before, and has professed openly in court that “people who are stupid enough to be stolen from deserve it.” This person is wealthy, but steals for the thrill of it. The other defendant fell on hard times and stole to pay for food for their children. It is their first charged offense. They have shown remorse, sought out a support network on their own volition in case of future hardship, and secured new sources of income while the case was pending. How can we say that these people present an equal risk of reoffending or deserve to be punished equally? Shouldn’t the context of their decision to turn to crime matter?

A Counterpoint

But, of course, the reason sentencing guidelines were implemented in the first place is that judges in the past sentenced criminals too freely, giving the justice system the appearance of partiality or capriciousness. Just as it doesn’t seem fair when passing sentence to leave out factors that excuse a crime or make it worse, it doesn’t seem fair to let one criminal walk away with probation while another is imprisoned for years for the same offense. Sentencing guidelines are a way to find a middle ground on this issue, so that we have a way to account for the complexity of criminal cases in the real world, but also a foundation for official punishments beyond individual judges’ discretion.