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

In the 1980s, it became apparent to those in the U.S. government that there were wide sentencing disparities in the United States federal court system. Defendants who were convicted of very similar crimes were receiving wildly different sentences. Accordingly, 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. Some courts had been in the practice of issuing sentences with minimum and maximum imprisonment terms. That left the actual amount of time that the person was imprisoned up to the parole board.

Now, those guidelines are in place. They were designed with the intent that it would be mandatory for every presiding federal judge to comply with them. However, in 2005 the United States Supreme Court found in the case of United States v. Booker that the guidelines, as they were then written, violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. The court also found that judges are required to consider a wide range of factors when deciding individual sentences and that Federal Appeals Courts can review Federal District Court sentences for reasonableness. The remedy was to remove the mandatory requirement from the guidelines. Now, presiding judges are required to calculate the guidelines and to consider them for each criminal conviction. However, they are not required to follow them.

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 that consideration be paid to 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 very detailed. The sentence imposed is based not only on the crime committed and the offender’s previous criminal history but also on things such as whether there were any injuries to victims and the complexity of the crime.

State Guidelines

Approximately half of the states have state 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. A 2008 study by the National Center for State Courts studied sentencing guidelines in three states. The three states were Virginia which has voluntary guidelines, Michigan which has guidelines that allow for judicial discretion and Minnesota which has a mandatory guideline system. The study found that in all three states, criminal sentences are generally not influenced by race or class. This was in marked contrast to the discrepancy in sentencing that was found prior to the sentencing guidelines being implemented. Therefore, the study concluded that the sentencing guidelines were the reason that discrimination as not found and that held true regardless of whether they were voluntary or mandatory.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Sentencing Guidelines

Those opposed to sentencing guidelines often argue that guidelines do not allow judges to take into consideration the individual circumstances that are unique to the person being sentenced. Those in favor of sentencing guidelines usually argue that without the guidelines judges hand down different punishments for the same crime. It is clear that there are both benefits and drawbacks to sentencing guidelines which must be carefully weighed by each presiding judge and for each convicted criminal.

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