Will Justice Jackson Help Shape More Progressive Criminal Justice?

Crime and Justice News

Jill Mceldowney – April 8, 2022

With her confirmation by the Senate, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be the first United States Supreme Court justice who previously served as a public defender and, for the first time since the court’s founding in 1790, the first Black woman to sit on the highest court.

Jackson’s opinions and decisions will undoubtedly continue to be scrutinized just as the other “firsts” were: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man appointed.

The first in any category is always subject to special scrutiny, but Jackson has promised neutrality as a justice and acknowledged her limited role: She told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I decide cases from a neutral posture, evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath. I know that my role as a judge is a limited one.”

In the committee, many senators were bent on questioning Jackson’s sentencing record, pressing her about having sentenced people convicted of possession of child pornography to less time behind bars than is recommended by federal guidelines.

Critics brought up a case in which Jackson sentenced 19-year old Wesley Hawkins to three months in prison followed by six years of supervised release after pleading guilty to downloading images of child sexual abuse.

However, Jackson’s sentencing of Hawkins case, and others, were in line with many prosecutor recommendations at the time.

Just Thursday, Ruben Verastigui, 29, of Washington, D.C., was sentenced by federal Judge Amit Mehta to more than 12 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release on a charge of receipt of child pornography. He will be required to register as a sex offender for at least 15 years.

Verastigui’s harsh sentence is a sharp reminder of the problems that plague the criminal justice system such as mandatory minimum penalties, over-sentencing, and over-prosecuting.

Jackson’s decisions on the bench will help shape the landscape of the criminal justice system for decades to come. Joining the most conservative Supreme Court in recent memory, Jackson’s experiences and perspective has the possibility to produce surprising results and will certainly trickle down to judges who are

involved in direct sentencing.

What does Jackson’s confirmation mean for the future? For starters, future presidents may be reluctant to nominate former trial judges, and federal judges aiming for the highest court may forgo moderate sentencing for penalties strictly in line with mandatory minimums and time suggested by federal guidelines.

Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: Jackson’s confirmation has the ability to help shape a more progressive state of criminal justice.

Jill Mceldowney is a student at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law