When you are convicted of a crime in federal court, the judge will determine what your sentence will be during your sentencing hearing. A sentencing hearing may take place right after you’ve pled or have been found guilty or even months after your verdict has been read. Typically the sentence may consist of a fine, jail time, or in some cases both.  

Present-day, when a federal judge decides sentencing for people convicted of a crime, they rely on the federal sentencing guidelines in determining the appropriate punishment. Federal sentencing guidelines offer recommended sentences based on a combination of the criminal history of the defendant and the type of crime the defendant committed.  

Although federal sentencing guidelines were created by Congress through passing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”) with the idea of having more fair and consistent sentencing by judges, there is still harsh criticism for both the guidelines themselves and the results generated from the utilization of the guidelines.

What are Some Criticisms of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Today, federal sentencing guidelines are still very much the subject of a great amount of debate and criticism. Before the United States Congress passed the federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect on November 1, 1987, federal judges imposed indeterminate sentences with nearly unlimited discretion, so long as they stayed within the broad statutory ranges of punishment prescribed by Congress.  

The Supreme Court of the United States even recognized that this broad discretion of sentencing courts and federal judges had led to significant sentencing disparities among similarly situated offenders and that judges had an “unjustifiably wide range of sentences to offenders with similar histories, convicted of similar crimes, committed under similar circumstances.”  

For instance, a federal judge in one district could have determined the crime of robbery warranted a 1 year sentence in prison, while the judge in another, or the same, district found that the same crime committed under similar circumstances warranted a 20 year prison sentence.  

As a result of these inconsistencies in federal sentencing of crimes, many citizens began to lobby for federal guidelines and more consistent sentencing, resulting in Congress passing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  

As noted above, the objective of the Sentencing Reform Act was to completely overhaul and correct the federal sentencing disparities nationally, but the result were that punishments became more severe and disparities were still rampant throughout the nation.  

Congress also created the United States Sentencing Commission in 1984, which is directed by the SRA to establish sentencing policies and practices by promulgating and amending the federal sentencing guidelines and issuing reports to Congress recommending changes in federal legislation related to sentencing. Although the newly formed commission claimed to base the federal sentencing guidelines on existing practice, their data was limited, so they simply took existing sentencing lengths and increased them.

For instance, the commission chose to use Congress’ mandatory minimum sentences as the base level for federal sentencing guidelines, resulting in the requirement of sentence even above the levels that Congress had set.  

Further, the federal sentencing guidelines resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of all defendants sentenced to prison, and with longer sentences of imprisonment, rather than alternative forms of punishment, such as probation or community service.  

The guidelines made it mandatory that judges consider past criminal history as a means of increasing the punishment and terms of imprisonment for repeat offenders. Thus, a repeat offender for a petty crime, would now face much harsher penalties and have their sentences enhanced, similar to that of an offender convicted of a much more severe and heinous crime. The inevitable result was and still is the very heavily debated topic of prison overcrowding.  

Next, the federal sentencing guidelines still had rampant sentencing disparities. For example, before 2010 one person may be convicted of possession of 5 grams of cocaine and receive a 5 year prison sentence, while a different person was convicted and received the same 5 year prison sentence for possession of 500 grams of cocaine.  

What was the difference? The person convicted of possession of 500 grams of cocaine possesed powder cocaine, while the other possessed crack cocaine. Possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine and possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine used to carry the same 5 year mandatory minimum sentence, under federal sentencing guidelines.  

The sentencing disparity between these two similar drug offense was often determined by commentators and scholars as being racially biased, especially because it led to a racial imbalance in prisons. However, this 100:1 sentencing ratio was later reduced to a 18:1 ratio with Congress’ passing of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

What Should You Do If You are Facing a Mandated Federal Sentence?

By 2018, more than 1.8 million defendants have been sentenced under the federal sentencing guidelines. If you have further questions regarding the guidelines or are facing criminal charges yourself that you feel may be unfair or unjust, contacting a well experienced and licensed criminal defense attorney may be in your best interest.  

An experienced attorney will be able to represent you before the court and help you receive a less harsh and more favorable sentence. Federal sentencing guidelines remain the subject of a great deal of debate and it is unclear whether any major changes will be made to the system which might ease these problems.