The Sentencing seminar is a distinctive opportunity for students to study with a federal judge who deals regularly with this complex issue. Professor Gerard Lynch '75, who besides being Paul J. Kellner Professor of Law is also a federal district judge for the Southern District of New York, envisioned the course in the early 1990s, while on teaching leave from Columbia. He was serving as chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office during the early years of sentencing guidelinesóthat is, mandatory sentences for federal crimes. "The experience convinced me that you could combine philosophical and policy issues with a real body of law, to form a new course of instruction," he says. Using his own materials, he created the course upon his return to teaching.
Although developed to curb the unevenness of judicial decisions, mandatory sentences have come under increasing criticism. Prof. Lynch has been critical of such sentences, believing that many of the guidelines are unnecessarily severe, ignore the unique characteristics of each defendant, and reduce the discretion of judges to deal with unusual cases.
The Sentencing seminar begins with discussion and debate about the purpose of punishment and of sentencing. "Are we attempting to give people what they deserve, or trying to reduce crime?" asks Prof. Lynch. "These goals can be very much in conflict." Presumably, adds Prof. Lynch, we intend the criminal justice system to reduce crime by deterring, incapacitating, or rehabilitating offenders. Yet sentencing driven by these goals may conflict with giving people their "just deserts." Those who commit crimes of passion, for example, may not need prison terms to keep them from committing other crimes, but most people would still support long sentences for such serious offenses. Conversely, a long sentence for a third conviction for shoplifting may reduce crime, but is it fair?
"We have a higher crime rate than any other industrialized country even though we incarcerate more people per capita," says Prof. Lynch. "What is the cause and what is the effect? The average citizen doesn't think about this too much, but when you have to actually confront cases and decide policy, you can't get by with generalizations."
Prof. Lynch, who has won both Law School and University-wide teaching awards, uses the case of Lt. Col. Oliver North, a marine involved in the Iran-Contra Affair during the 1980s, to illustrate the complexity of cases. Col. North faced convictions for conspiracy to defraud the United States and of making false statements to Congressóboth of which were ultimately reversed. Prof. Lynch, who represented the prosecution in that appeal, asks whether a judge should consider that the alleged offenses were not committed for personal gain but in the belief that he was doing the best for his country. Examining cases like those of North and financier Michael Milken, who were sentenced before sentencing guidelines, allows the class to compare the ways in which sentences were handed down then and now.
With Gerard Lynch, students get a seasoned criminal law professor and an active federal district court judge. Photo credit: Dustin Ross