Fulbright Award Advances Criminal Justice Scholar’s Quest for Sentencing Insights 

October 26, 2023

Carissa Byrne Hessick, the Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland “Buck” Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has received a prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Chair to conduct comparative research on criminal sentencing practices in Australia. The Fulbright award will support Hessick’s field work in Australia and facilitate her larger book project examining sentencing frameworks across common law countries.

With an extensive background studying criminal sentencing, plea bargaining, prosecutorial accountability, and justice reform, Hessick is well-situated to bring nuance to comparing punishment frameworks across borders. Intrigued by Australia’s approach, Hessick designed her Fulbright project to further this comparative analysis that could shape reform.

As Hessick explained, “These common law countries are pretty similar in their systems, they’re not identical, they’re pretty similar, and they’re pretty similar in terms of what they’re trying to do in sentencing too, but they’ve set the arrangements up slightly differently than what we did in the U.S.” She elaborated that since the U.S. seeks a new sentencing approach, analyzing how comparable nations have configured their models provides “natural experiments” to identify improvements. Examining not just sentencing laws but how these frameworks operate in practice, she said, allows assessment of reforms the U.S. could adopt from this closely related legal system. This work represents over a decade of Hessick’s scholarship investigating sentencing and prosecutor accountability issues. “It makes sense to closely analyze what comparable nations like Australia are doing differently,” she said.

While abroad, Hessick plans to collaborate extensively with leading experts like Professor Lorana Bartels at Australian National University in Canberra. Hessick is particularly eager to work with Bartels, as she is a highly respected scholar who bridges the gap between theory and practice. In addition, Hessick explained she will travel across Australian states to conduct field research, including New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. By interviewing judges, lawmakers, and other legal scholars nationwide, she aims to gather diverse perspectives on Australia’s sentencing policies and practices.

By taking this comparative approach, Hessick hopes to highlight how different criminal justice systems balance the complex aims of consistency, fairness, and individualized justice in punishments. Her work suggests the U.S. has oscillated between standardized sentences and unfettered judicial discretion. Looking to Australia illuminates alternative models. “Maybe we need to rethink how we define consistency and justice,” Hessick said.

In addition to reforming sentencing, Hessick’s time abroad will likely impact her teaching. Immersing in Australia’s legal landscape can provide an outsider’s view of her own country to share with students. “It may help me better articulate often unspoken cultural and systemic nuances,” she explained. She strives not only to teach legal rules, but the context shaping them. For instance, by exposing students to sentencing models abroad, she can encourage critical thinking about assumptions embedded in U.S. approaches. This Fulbright represents a chance to meaningfully enrich her approach as an educator.

On a broader level, the Fulbright reflects Hessick’s sincere commitment to advancing cross-border understanding, inspired by Senator William Fulbright’s vision. As she profoundly stated: “I really want to take that very seriously. I think the world is a volatile place. Sometimes it can be difficult for people outside of the United States to understand what goes on within the United States. It can be too easy for people within the United States to not think about what’s happening in the rest of the world. I’m really a zealous convert to the idea of diplomacy, not just being officials from the State Department, talking to their counterparts in other countries, but it’s really about people in the world trying to better understand each other. And then because of that, probably themselves.” Hessick wholeheartedly embraces Fulbright’s mission of citizens furthering diplomacy.

With Hessick’s background researching criminal justice issues and commitment to reform, her Fulbright project promises to further public and scholarly discourse around approaches to complex sentencing policy dilemmas. Both Australia and the U. S. appear well-poised to gain understanding from this cross-country exchange.

The Fulbright Program is an international academic exchange program founded in 1946 with an ambitious goal — to increase mutual understanding and support friendly and peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Today, the U.S. government oversees an extensive suite of fellowships and scholarships in partnership with more than 160 countries worldwide.