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Federalism and the Politics of Sentencing

Rachel E. Barkow
Columbia Law Review
Vol. 105, No. 4 (May, 2005), pp. 1276-1314
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4099434
Page Count: 39
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Federalism and the Politics of Sentencing
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Abstract

The politics of sentencing over the past three decades have been onesided. Voices in favor of tougher sentences dominate the legislative debate at the state and federal levels. Those advocating on behalf of sentencing reform or alternatives to incarceration garner little attention. Although there are various options for improving deliberation in light of this political imbalance, one mechanism appears to be having an impact in many jurisdictions: a focus on the direct costs of incarceration. There is evidence from the states that tight budgets and a corresponding concern with the rising costs of existing incarceration policies have prompted greater deliberation, a consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and a rethinking of sanctions for some crimes. This focus on costs has served in some sense as a surrogate for typically ignored voices, such as prisoners and their families. When legislators take incarceration costs into account, they necessarily consider more than one side of the sentencing issue, and they begin to see that longer terms of incarceration involve at least some tradeoffs. I explain that looking at costs in this context therefore serves some of the same deliberation-enhancing values that proponents of risk tradeoff and cost-benefit analyses have identified in other regulatory contexts. Firm conclusions must await empirical research, but a preliminary analysis suggests that, because the states seem institutionally predisposed to place greater weight on these costs than the federal government, the state decisionmaking process on sentencing is susceptible to greater balance and is therefore likely to be more informed.

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