Facing the Music

State of New Jersey v. Cory Bieniek.
This opinion illustrates justification for punishment, a concept I blogged about here. Generally speaking two schools of thought occupy with this topic. One is utilitarian and the other is retributivist.

Utilitarians calculate for the net benefit of society. This involves using the law as a means to achieve what may be a politically expedient end. Utilitarians always calculate irrespective of public interest and media coverage of a case.

Retributivists, by contrast, focus on each individual offender. Here, a judge may focus on the defendant as a "whole person." Even though "whole person" evidence may be inadmissible at trial, the sentencing judge may rely on it without reservation thus focusing on the individual offender.

In my earlier post, I explained the broader distinctions between these two schools.

The above opinion, State v. Cory Bieniek illustrates these policy concerns under New Jersey law because it covers the sentencing judge's discretion. Legislature expressed society's interest in consistent sentencing through the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, N.J.S.A. 2C. Thus, it authorizes judges to exercise "structured discretion." A sentence will not be disturbed so long as the sentencing judge has adhered to these guidelines.

Accordingly, sentencing must be based on aggravating and mitigating factors set forth under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a) and N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b). To do this, the parties and the court must develop the record with evidence, and the judge must apply that evidence to the factors in explaining his findings.

In State v. Cory Bieniek, the trial judge rejected a mitigating factor which requires finding the defendant did not contemplate his conduct would cause or threaten serious harm," N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(2). The trial court referred to society's continuous campaign against drunk driving. This may be a utilitarian justification generally to deter others from driving under the influence. The court also emphasized this defendant did not get the message. This may be a utilitarian justification both generally to deter society by making an example of this defendant, and specifically to deter this defendant from driving under the influence again.

To illustrate retributivism, the defendant did not qualify for the mitigating factor under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(7), which requires finding the defendant has no significant criminal history. Reflecting retributivist thought, the trial judge reviewed the defendant's juvenile record going back to the age of sixteen. In this way the trial court refused to apply the mitigating factor by focusing on the offender himself.

In conclusion, this case and the relevant statutes demonstrate sentencing policy under New Jersey law blends both utilitarian and retributivist rationales.