When you are convicted of a crime in federal court, the judge will determine what your sentence will be. 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.  

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 still remain prevalent.  

For example, before 2010 one person may be convicted of possession of 5 grams crack cocaine and receive a 5 year prison sentence, while a different person is convicted and receives the same 5 year prison sentence for possession of 500 grams of cocaine.  

What is the difference? The person convicted of possession of 500 grams of cocaine possesed powder 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. However, this 100:1 sentencing ratio was later reduced to a 18:1 ratio with Congress’ passing of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  

Given the disparities in sentencing still prevalent today, the disparities historically were even more wide-ranging than the 100:1 punishment ratio of cocaine; punishments for the exact same crime were in fact vastly different depending primarily on the particular  judge you appeared before.

The Evolution of Federal Sentencing Guidelines Since the 1980’s

Historically, federal judges had almost complete discretion in imposing sentences for crimes committed in their jurisdiction.  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.  

Afterwards, the United States Parole Commission would decide when offenders were allowed release from prison on parole. In short, judges and parole authorities had innumerable power, especially relative to the other sentencing players like jurors, lawmakers, or prosecutors. Further, appellate review of a trial court judge’s sentencing was rarely done; in fact, only a few states had the ability to review a trial court judge.  

Thus, a federal trial court judge’s authority in imposing sentences was almost absolute and very inconsistent. For instance, it was often the case before federal sentencing guidelines that one judge may determine that a crime of burglary should carry a sentence of 1 year in prison, while another judge may determine that for the exact same crime with a similar fact pattern, a 20 year prison sentence should be imposed.  

As a result of the inconsistencies in federal sentencing of crimes, many people began to push for federal guidelines and more consistent sentencing. Even the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that the broad discretion of sentencing courts and parole officials 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 combined with Supreme Court decisions, 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 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.

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; and
  7. They must consider the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.

By 2018, more than 1.8 million defendants have been sentenced under the federal sentencing guidelines. Further, unlike court decisions prior the enactment of the SRA, there have been tens of thousands of federal appeals involving the guidelines and three dozen Supreme Court decisions.  

If you have further questions regarding the guidelines or are facing criminal charges yourself, contacting a well experienced and licensed criminal attorney may be in your best interest.