For nearly 20 years, federal judges were required to follow special rules when sentencing defendants convicted of crimes.  These rules are known as federal sentencing guidelines, and they gave a range for jail time and fines based on the nature of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history.  The sentence was required to fall within the range specified in the guidelines, with only a few exceptions.

However, in 2005 the Supreme Court declared that the mandatory nature of the guidelines was unconstitutional.  The Court’s decision had two major effects.  First, it made the federal sentencing guidelines purely advisory.  This means that federal judges now have discretion to determine sentences.

The other major effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is that since judges are now given a choice when making a sentencing decision, that decision must be reasonable.  Therefore, a sentence can be appealed to the next court for review.  The decision can be appealed by either the prosecution or the defendant.

Recent studies have shown that most judges’ decisions still fall within the federal sentencing guidelines.  However, the Supreme Court’s decision has brought an element of fairness to the sentencing process.