Sentencing Guidelines: Fair Sentences or a Denial of Trial by Jury?
- Sentencing guidelines are based on the criminal offense, criminal history, and aggravating and mitigating factors.
- Sentencing guidelines provide the maximum and minimum jail term penalties.
- A judge can deviate from the guidelines but may have to provide their reasons in writing.
Sentencing guidelines impose a specific prison sentence on you based on your crime and criminal history. Criminal sentencing has recommended sentencing terms, with maximum and minimums. Judges have discretionary power to go outside the guidelines, but they have to give you reasons for deviating from them.
Different states have different criminal law sentencing procedures. If you have questions about criminal sentencing for your criminal case, talk to a criminal defense attorney for legal advice.
If you are convicted of a crime, the judge can decide the term of imprisonment as part of your sentencing hearing. Federal sentencing is based on guidelines developed by the United States Sentencing Commission.
Historically, there were sentencing disparities in the criminal justice system. Defendants convicted of similar crimes could receive very different sentences. The federal courts and states began to develop sentencing guidelines.
Federal sentencing guidelines provide a common framework for the sentencing process. Statutory guidelines start with the base offense level. The appropriate sentence can increase or decrease depending on specific criminal conduct. For example, the guidelines range for robbery can increase if you used a firearm.
Sentencing enhancements can increase or decrease the offense level. For example, multiple drug trafficking counts can increase the offense. Accepting responsibility for your actions can reduce the offense level.
The sentencing decision is based on the crime committed and takes your full criminal record into account. Judges can consider any prior convictions and acquitted conduct for crimes you were not convicted of. Relevant conduct factors can include:
- All acts and omissions committed by the defendant
- Joint criminal activity
- All resulting harm
- Any other information
The Supreme Court decision United States v. Booker determined that sentencing guidelines violated the accused’s Sixth Amendment constitutional rights. It would violate your right to a jury trial if they allowed judges to look at facts not presented to the jurors.
As a result, sentencing guidelines were advisory but not mandatory. Sentencing guidelines must be consulted and taken into account. District court judges determine the sentencing range. The guidelines include the statutory maximum sentence and mandatory minimum sentencing.
The sentencing judge can depart from the guidelines for atypical aggravating or mitigating circumstances. However, the sentencing is still subject to review by the courts of appeal.
There are exceptions to mandatory minimum penalties at the federal level. The “safety valve” can be used for drug offenses. If you qualify, the judge is required to deliver a sentence below the statutory provisions. Eligibility requires:
- You did not harm anyone during the crime
- Does not have a significant criminal history
- Did not use violence or a weapon during the crime
- Was not a leader or organizer of the crime
- Did truthfully tell the prosecutor of all facts and knowledge they possessed about the offense
The “substantial assistance” exception may be an option if an offender offers information to law enforcement. This includes information that materially aids the case or leads to the prosecution of other offenders. In these cases, prosecutors may ask the sentencing court for a reduced sentence.
State legislatures working with federal laws can also enact mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws typically target controlled substance and firearm crime. However, several states have loosened their mandatory sentencing laws in recent years.
Approximately half of the states have sentencing guidelines for state court criminal cases. However, the state sentencing guidelines vary widely. Some states publish the state’s applicable sentencing guidelines on their websites. Other states don’t use guidelines and give judges discretion in deciding the your sentence.
A criminal defense lawyer is not just for defending your rights at the criminal trial. A plea bargain may allow you to avoid the most severe penalties. If you accept a plea agreement, your lawyer can negotiate to get a reduced sentence or avoid charges for some criminal offenses. If the trial judge accepts the plea deal, you will know the penalties before making the guilty plea.
Your lawyer can also represent you during sentencing. As part of the criminal procedure, your lawyer can advocate for you during sentencing. Your lawyer can show mitigating factors to reduce your sentence below the applicable guidelines. For help with your particular case, consult with a criminal defense lawyer.
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