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Michael M. O’Hear, Bark and Bite: The Environmental Sentencing Guidelines After Booker, 2009 Utah L. Rev. 1151.

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2009 Utah Law Review 1151


The federal sentencing guidelines for environmental crimes bark loudly, calling for sentences of imprisonment for all but the most trivial of environmental offenses. Although the terms of imprisonment are not long, the prospect of even a short period of incarceration is doubtlessly capable of getting the attention of the white-collar professionals who typically commit environmental offenses. Research I conducted in 2004, however, indicated that the bark of the environmental guidelines was considerably worse than their bite. Judges “departed” below the applicable guidelines range in an unusually high percentage of environmental cases, barely one-third of convicted environmental defendants received prison sentences, and only about forty percent of prison sentences exceeded one year in length.

Although the data contained in my 2004 study were striking at the time, ensuing developments might appropriately raise questions as to their reliability today. For instance, the Supreme Court fundamentally restructured federal sentencing law through its 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, which changed the status of the federal sentencing guidelines from mandatory to advisory.

With Booker and other developments in mind, the present article updates the data from my earlier study, demonstrating a surprising level of continuity from the Clinton to the Bush eras, and from pre-Booker to post-Booker. Simply put, despite notable institutional and legal changes, the bark of the environmental guidelines remains considerably worse than their bite.

Finally, the article considers normative implications of the bark/bite gap. In light of the overarching purposes and premises of the federal sentencing system, the data provide important support for a fundamental redesign of the environmental guidelines. Failing such a redesign by the Sentencing Commission, the data should be regarded by the courts as providing some support for arguments by individual defendants that particular provisions of the environmental guidelines should not be applied to them.

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