If someone is convicted of a crime in federal court, the judge will determine what the sentence will be.  This sentence can consist of jail time, a fine, or both.

Originally, federal judges had complete discretion about the sentence to be imposed.  However, this led to different judges passing very different sentences for very similar crimes.  As a result, many people began to push for consistency in sentencing. 

In response, Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1987.  These guidelines consider the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history.  A sentencing range is recommended in light of these factors.  It became mandatory for judges to pass a sentence that fell within this range.

Federal sentencing guidelines solved the problem of inconsistent sentencing.  However, many people felt that they were too inflexible.  Despite this, the guidelines were mandatory for nearly two decades.  However, in a landmark decision in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional. 

Since then, judges have been allowed flexibility when considering sentencing.  However, while federal judges will sometimes pass a sentence that is harsher or more lenient than the recommended sentence, most still follow the recommended guidelines.