Sholom Rubashkin, a first-time, non-violent offender, was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud related to his operation of a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville. He is no Boy Scout. He committed financial fraud, was convicted at trial and deserves punishment.
Like any defendant found guilty of having committed a federal crime, Rubashkin also was constitutionally entitled to consideration of all arguments for leniency, an explanation of the reasons for the sentence he received, and review of that punishment by a higher court.
But when Chief District Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa disregarded her obligation to consider Rubashkin’s grounds for mercy and instead just sentenced him to 27 years behind bars, she left the appellate judges who examined Rubashkin’s case with no means for determining whether the penalty she imposed was fair, just or reasonable.
That’s why it’s so important for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rubashkin’s appeal.
Most big-time frauds are prosecuted in federal court, where sentencing guidelines largely dictate the length of prison terms. Those guidelines sort offenders into one of 43 “offense levels” based on different aspects of their crimes. Higher offense levels reflect more serious conduct and give rise to longer prison terms.
In financial fraud cases, offense levels are based principally on the amount of money lost. Consideration of a number of other factors, like the role that a defendant played in a crime, can also lead to longer sentences.
Objectively, this makes sense. A $500,000 fraud is generally more serious, and deserving of a longer sentence, than a $50,000 fraud. Likewise, people who run criminal enterprises deserve more time than those who work for them. But when it comes to large-scale economic crimes that occur in corporate settings — like that for which Rubashkin was convicted — strict application of the guidelines sometimes results in sentences disconnected from any common sentencing sense. Indeed, they can fall into the realm of prison terms usually reserved for major international drug traffickers and terrorists.
That’s exactly what happened in Rubashkin’s case.
Judge Reade applied the federal sentencing guidelines with unusual methodical rigor. She analyzed every provision and subprovision that might conceivably apply to Rubashkin. Many overlapped with one another, effectively punishing him multiple times for the same conduct. Judge Reade also considered certain charges that were dropped. And she punished Rubashkin in part for testifying on his own behalf, accusing him of perjury.
That’s not all that went wrong in Judge Reade’s courtroom. A series of recent Supreme Court decisions prohibit judges from mechanically adhering to federal guidelines. Rather, judges are supposed to use their own judgment when meting out sentences, including consideration of all factors that might mitigate the sentence suggested by the guidelines.
Simply put, judges are required to impose sentences that fit both the offender and the offense and are supposed to jail defendants for only as long as is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to reflect a host of penal objectives.
In Rubashkin’s case, Judge Reade paid only lip service to these legal requirements. She dispatched her obligation to consider factors other than the federal guidelines in a mere four pages of her 52-page sentencing decision. She essentially gave the back of her hand to the mitigating detail presented by Rubashkin’s lawyers, including his responsibility for 10 children, his extensive charitable activities, the absence of any indication that he was motivated by greed, and, most significantly, the disproportionality of the sentence recommended by federal guidelines as compared to those handed down in fraud cases of similar size and scope.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit essentially ignored Judge Reade’s omissions, inaccurately stating that she had “explicitly discussed each possible basis” for a shorter sentence than that called for by federal guidelines. In doing so, that court failed to fulfill its own obligation to ensure that sentences conform with the constitutional standards set by the Supreme Court.
To ensure the promise of a fair and just criminal justice system, it is critical that the Supreme Court, which is currently considering his request for a hearing, review Rubashkin’s case. It should find that judges must state on the record — in a written statement of reasons or during the sentencing hearing itself — that they considered and how they accounted for each and every mitigating factor.
This is of particular importance to those who receive sentences measured in decades, not years, like the 27-year prison term that Rubashkin received. The alternative — silence by sentencing judges — is constitutionally unacceptable, not only for the likes of Rubashkin, but also for any other citizen who might one day run afoul of the law. Demoin Register