Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Brief Overview


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The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that purport to set out a uniform sentencing policy for individuals convicted of crimes in the United States federal court system. The Guidelines are the product of the United States Sentencing Commission and are part of an overall federal sentencing reform package that took effect in the mid-1980s. The purported goals are to alleviate sentencing disparities that extensive research had indicated was prevalent in the previous existing sentencing system, and to provide for determinate sentencing. Determinate sentencing is a sentencing scheme whose actual limits are determined at the time the sentence is imposed. An indeterminate sentencing scheme is one in which a sentence with a maximum (and, perhaps, a minimum) is pronounced but the actual sentence is determined by a parole commission or similar administrative body after the person has started serving their sentence. As part of the guidelines reform, parole was abolished.


Federal Sentencing Guideline Basics

The sentencing guidelines determine sentences based on two factors: the conduct associated with the offense and the defendant's criminal history. Numeric values are assigned to each factor according to the rules set forth in the guidelines-rules that attempt to account for the unique circumstances of each offense and ultimately recommended sentence range in months. For example, a conviction where the offense level is assigned a value of 22 results in a sentence range of 41-51 months when the "criminal history category" is I. The same offense at a "criminal history category" of VI results in a Guidelines range of 84-105 months. A wide body of case law has been developed regarding each detail and definition pertinent to assigning these numeric values. For example, is the defendant a leader or organizer of the criminal transaction or did he play a minimal role? A federal defendant needs an attorney who is well-versed in sentencing procedures and the intricacies of the guidelines.


Advisory Only - No Longer Mandatory

Though the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were styled as mandatory, the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker found that the Guidelines, as originally constituted, violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and the remedy chosen was excision of those provisions of the law establishing the Guidelines as mandatory. In the aftermath of Booker and other Supreme Court cases, such as Blakely v. Washington (2004), Guidelines are now considered advisory only, on both the federal and the state levels. Judges must calculate the guidelines and consider them when determining a sentence but are not required to issue sentences within the guidelines. Those sentences are still, however, subject to appellate review.

Additional Resources

United States Sentencing Commission

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