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Sentencing Guidelines: Fair Sentences or a Denial of Trial by Jury?

Because of wide sentencing disparities in the United States federal court system where defendants convicted of similar crimes received wildly different sentences, a movement began to develop federal sentencing guidelines.

In addition to providing equitable sentences around the country, the sentencing guidelines were meant to impose a specific sentence on defendants, sometimes referred to as mandatory minimum sentencing.

What Is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?

Sentencing guidelines were initially designed to address concerns that criminal defendants were subject to the whims of an individual judge. However, a 2005 Supreme Court decision (United States v. Booker) determined that sentencing guidelines violated the accused's Sixth Amendment rights, namely the right to a jury trial, if they allowed judges to look at facts not presented to the jury.

This ruling, however, did not prevent the widespread application of existing, or newly created, mandatory and maximum sentencing laws passed by Congress. Instead, it made the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines advisory, rather than mandatory.

While sentencing guidelines remain on the books for each federal crime, judges are bound to apply mandatory minimum sentencing if applicable. The federal sentencing guidelines, created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, exist to offer some latitude to rule outside of a mandatory minimum if the case allows.

How Do Mandatory Minimum Sentences Work?

Mandatory minimum sentences are worked into criminal law by Congress, with the legislation including a minimum punishment for each specific charge. When a case proceeds to federal court, any crimes for which a mandatory sentence applies must see the minimum and maximum sentence observed by the judge if the defendant pleads or is found guilty. This means that there is a hard "floor" and "ceiling" for these charges, leaving judges only the discretionary power to deliver a ruling within these legal boundaries.

How Are the Guidelines Fashioned?

The federal sentencing guidelines heavily rely on two factors when determining an individual defendant's sentence. First, the guidelines require the judge to consider the particular crime. Then, the criminal's previous criminal history must be considered.

As a whole, some commentators have compared the sentencing guidelines to the tax code because they are long and detailed. The sentence imposed is based not only on the crime committed and the offender's previous criminal history but also on whether there were any injuries to victims and the complexity of the crime.

Exceptions to Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

There are two exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level.

For instance, the "safety valve" can be used for drug offenses. If the offender satisfies all five qualities of the applicable test, the judge is required to deliver a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The test demands that the offender:

  • 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

"Substantial assistance" may be an option if an offender offers information to prosecutors that materially aids the case or leads to the prosecution of other offenders. In these cases, prosecutors may ask the court for a reduced sentence beneath the mandatory minimum.

Mandatory Sentencing Laws

State legislatures, working in tandem with federal laws of the same description can also enact mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws typically target drug and firearm crime. However, several states have loosened their mandatory sentencing laws in recent years, with critics blaming the policies for overcrowding in penal institutions and other negative outcomes.

State Sentencing Guidelines

Approximately half of the states have sentencing guidelines for state court criminal cases. However, the state sentencing guidelines vary widely. Some state court systems publish the state's sentencing guidelines on their websites.

Are Sentencing Guidelines Fair?

Advocates argue that sentencing guidelines keep criminals off the streets, disincentivizes crime, and prevent judicial activism in the form of too-lenient sentencing. By contrast, opponents claim that mandatory minimum sentencing is inhumane, creates career criminals out of otherwise redeemable citizens, leads to mass incarceration and the costs associated with mass incarceration, and removes agency from the judiciary.