History of Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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 What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

When you are convicted of a crime in federal court, the judge will hold a sentencing hearing to determine your sentence. Typically, the sentence will consist of a fine, restitution (payment to the victim), prison time, community service, or a combination of these.

When a federal judge decides sentencing for a defendant, they are required to consider established federal sentencing guidelines in determining the appropriate punishment. Federal sentencing guidelines offer recommended sentences based on a combination of the defendant’s criminal history and the type of crime the defendant committed.

Before the sentencing guidelines were developed, two defendants with similar backgrounds and crimes could be sentenced to wildly disparate amounts of time in prison or the amount of the fine. The purpose of the sentencing guidelines was to set standard punishments to avoid wide swings in punishment from one defendant to another.

As a result of these inconsistencies, many citizens began to lobby for federal guidelines and more consistent sentencing. In response, Congress passed the “Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”

Today, federal sentencing guidelines are still very much the subject of a great amount of debate and criticism due to issues such as prison overcrowding and sentencing disparity problems that remain.

What Was the Situation Before the Sentencing Guidelines Were Implemented?

Historically, federal judges had almost complete discretion in imposing sentences for crimes committed in their jurisdiction. The only limit on their authority was the U.S. Constitution, which states that punishments may not be “cruel or unusual.” That unclear prohibition left the judges with significant room for personal interpretation. Before the United States Congress passed the federal sentencing guidelines in 1984, federal judges imposed indeterminate sentences with nearly unlimited discretion.

There were unfair discrepancies between the sentences for two people who committed the same crime. The range could be very wide: for instance, a federal judge in one district could sentence someone found guilty of robbery to 1 year in prison, while a judge in another (or even the same) district could punish a similar robbery with 20 years of incarceration.

The sentences were often unfair because they affected one race more than others. One person could be convicted of possessing as much as 500 grams of cocaine and receive a 5-year sentence, while a different person could be convicted and receive the same 5-year prison sentence for just 5 grams of cocaine. What was the difference? The person who had 500 grams of cocaine was white and possessed powdered cocaine, while the other was a minority and possessed crack cocaine.

A federal judge’s authority in imposing sentences was almost absolute and often applied inconsistently. Punishments for the same crime were, in fact, vastly different depending primarily on the particular judge you appeared before.

For instance, before federal sentencing guidelines it was the case that one judge might determine that a crime of burglary should carry a sentence of 1 year in prison, while another judge might determine that for the same crime with a similar fact pattern, a 20-year prison sentence should be imposed. In fact, one judge could do the same in the cases before them – a 10-year sentence for one defendant and a 20-year sentence for another.

The Evolution of Federal Sentencing Guidelines Since the 1980’s

As a result of these inconsistencies, people began to push for more consistent sentencing. Even the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that the broad discretion of sentencing courts 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.”

In response to increased pressure from the public, Congress passed the landmark Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”), in which Congress established a new federal sentencing system. Congress also created the United States Sentencing Commission, which the SRA directs 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.

What Factors are Considered in the Sentence Reform Act for Sentencing?

The Sentence Reform Act of 1984 sets forth seven factors that a sentencing court must consider:

  1. A sentencing court must consider the nature and circumstances of the offense and the criminal history of the defendant
  2. They must consider the need for the sentence imposed, reflecting on the four primary purposes of sentencing: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation
  3. They must consider the kinds of sentences available (whether probation is prohibited, etc.)
  4. They must consider the sentencing range established by the sentencing guidelines
  5. They must consider any relevant “policy statements” promulgated by the Commission
  6. They must consider the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct
  7. They must consider the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.

Courts are still having trouble applying the guidelines. There have been thousands of federal appeals involving the guidelines and three dozen Supreme Court decisions.

How Do the Sentencing Guidelines Function?

A table was created that sets out the coordination of offenses and offenders and the range of sentences was created. This table tells judges what the appropriate sentencing range for any particular scenario. The guidelines generally take two things into consideration: the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s prior criminal history.

Every federal crime that is a felony or a Class A misdemeanor is associated with an offense level. The guidelines include 43 base offense levels. Each crime has a base level of points (for example, robbery has 20 points. The higher the level, the more severe the crime is, and the more points are assigned, and thus, the longer the suggested prison sentence is.

Additional factors are then considered. These can raise or lower the base offense level and, in turn, affect the sentence. For instance, if the robbery was committed with a gun, an additional five points are awarded. If the gun is discharged, there is an increase of seven points.

Complicating things further is the possibility that adjustments apply. Adjustments are factors that may apply to any offense, raising or lowering the offense level. There are adjustments based on the condition of the victim (e.g., if the victim was elderly, there is an adjustment) and the role of the offender in the offense (if the offender played only a minimal role, an adjustment downward will be made.

Besides the nature of the offense, the other main factor used in the guidelines is the offender’s history. The guidelines are based on the common idea that repeat offenders should get longer prison sentences. In the guidelines system, points are awarded for every prior conviction.

Assigning the points for a crime is more of an art than a science. Prosecutors will argue that a given situation is worth, for example, 35 points, while the defense will argue that the correct number is 30. The judge has to hear the parties’ arguments and decide how much weight to give to them.

Judges can award sentences that are outside of the guidelines but they must give a written explanation of why they are doing so.

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

If you have further questions regarding the guidelines or are facing criminal charges that may be unfair or unjust, it is in your best interest to contact an experienced local criminal defense attorney.

An experienced attorney will know what to present before your particular judge to obtain for you a more favorable, less unreasonably harsh sentence for you.


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