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First-time offender, productive offender, offender with dependents: why the profile of offenders (sometimes) matters in sentencing

journal contribution
posted on 2015-01-01, 00:00 authored by Mirko Bagaric, Theo AlexanderTheo Alexander
Should a single mother of four young children who commits theft be sentenced to a lesser sanction than a woman who commits the same crime but has no dependents? Should a billionaire philanthropist be sentenced to a lesser penalty than the average citizen for assaulting a random bystander? Should a first-time thief receive a lighter sanction than a career thief for the same theft? The relevance of an offender’s profile to sentencing is unclear and is one of the most under-researched and least coherent areas of sentencing law. Intuitively, there is some appeal in treating offenders without a criminal record, those who have made a positive contribution to society, or who have dependents more leniently than other offenders. However, to allow these considerations to mitigate penalty potentially licenses offenders to commit crime and decouples the sanction from the severity of the offense, thereby undermining the proportionality principle. This article analyzes the relevance that an offender’s profile should have in sentencing. We conclude that a lack of prior convictions should generally reduce penalty because the empirical data shows that, in relation to most offenses, first-time offenders are less likely to reoffend than recidivist offenders. The situation is more complex in relation to offenders who have made worthy social contributions. They should not be given sentencing credit for past achievements given that past good acts have no relevance to the proper objectives of sentencing and it is normally not tenable, even in a crude sense, to make an informed assessment of an individual’s overall societal contribution. However, offenders should be accorded a sentencing reduction if they have financial or physical dependents and if imprisoning them is likely to cause harm to their dependents. Conferring a
sentencing discount to first-time offenders and those with
dependents does not license them to commit crime or unjustifiably
encroach on the proportionality principle. Rather, it recognizes the
different layers of the legal system and the reality that sentencing
law should not reflexively overwhelm broader maxims of justice,
including the principle that innocent people should not suffer. This
article argues that fundamental legislative reform is necessary to
properly reflect the role that the profile of offenders should have in
the sentencing regime.

History

Journal

Albany Law Review

Volume

78

Issue

2

Pagination

397 - 446

Publisher

Albany Law School

Location

Albany, New York

ISSN

0002-4678

Language

English

Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

Copyright notice

2015, Albany Law School

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