Mass Incarceration at Sentencing
Anne R. Traum
Volume 64, Issue 2, 423-468
Courts can address the problem of mass incarceration at sentencing. Although some scholars suggest that the most effective response may be through policy and legislative reform, judicial consideration of mass incarceration at sentencing would provide an additional response that can largely be implemented without wholesale reform. Mass incarceration presents a difficult problem for courts because it is a systemic problem that harms people on several scales—individual, family, and community—and the power of courts to address such broad harm is limited. This Article proposes that judges should consider mass incarceration, a systemic problem, in individual criminal cases at sentencing. Sentencing is well suited to this purpose because it is a routine phase of a criminal case when courts have great flexibility to individualize punishment based on individual and systemic factors. In this phase, judicial discretion is at its highest, the judges’ contact with defendants is most direct, and the court can consider the broadest information relevant to sentencing options and impacts. Mass incarceration can be viewed as a systemic concern that is relevant to both the defendant’s history and the traditional sentencing purposes—including the need to benefit public safety and to ensure that sentences are fair and just. Information about mass incarceration would enhance courts’ understanding of the impacts of sentencing on the defendant and others in the local community. This Article articulates how this can be accomplished in federal sentencing and suggests doctrinal and practice changes that would enhance courts’ capacity to consider and mitigate the harms of mass incarceration in individual cases.