U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Since the enactment of the sentencing reforms acts in 1984, the federal sentencing guidances have been the determinant the penalty given to an offender. However, Supreme Court ruling on the United States v. Booker overruled the sentencing guidance and give the jury the discretion to determine the sentence. The federal sentencing guidance violated the sixth amendment. Historicity, sentencing was either determinate or indeterminate. However, the increased rate of crimes in the second half of the 20th century and the disparity in sentencing led to the formulation of the sentencing guideline in the federal judicial systems.  

The federal sentencing guidelines are the legal structures that govern the sentencing of criminals in the federal judicial systems. They are rule that are set to ensure uniform sentencing of criminal in the federal courts. Once an offender is investigated by the relevant federal investigating agencies the grand jury indicts the defendant and he is punished appropriately according to the guidelines if found guilty. The rules were aimed at reducing disparities in sentencing and avoiding the abuse of office by the judicial officials. However, the guidelines were overruled in 2005 by the Supreme Court.  

U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines
The federal sentencing guidelines were created by the sentencing reforms acts in 1984. The primary objective of the guidelines was to remove the disparities in sentencing in different federal courts. Research on the sentencing of these could have indicated wide spread disparities and the reforms were expected to introduce deterministic sentencing lather that indeterminate sentencing. Deterministic sentencing is a case where the sentence is determined at the moment the conviction is made while indeterminate sentencing is announced at the time of conviction but determined before by an administrative authority or the parole commission.

In the early 2007, the federal sentencing guidelines changed when the United States Supreme Court ruled that these guidelines should not be mandatory but rather they should advise the jury. In it ruling, the Supreme Court overruled the legal requirement that made them mandatory. The ruling of the supreme court give the judge presiding over a case in the federal court the discretion in passing the sentence to an offender by not adhering strictly to the federal sentencing guidelines. However, the judge is obliged by the law to use the guidelines for advisory purposes. The ruling gave the judges discretion in passing a sentence unless the law requires that the particular offense amounts to mandatory sentence. This move has been seen by some as a move to the federal judges an opportunity to consider specific circumstances of the offence and the offender and give appropriate ruling. However, some people fears that the ruling may create loopholes for unhealthy disparities in sentencing. The federal sentencing under the new ruling was subject to inconsistency in the jurisdiction of the courts. This issue attracted the attention of the congress in considering whether the law should be changed to allow the federal judges to strictly follow the guidelines on sentencing or permit the to use their discretion depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender (Tiede, 2009).

In many cases the supreme courts maintains that according the sixth amendment of 2005, the jury can not impose a sentence to an offender that is above the maximum stipulated in the sentencing guidelines. However, the judge can give a ruling beyond statutory maximum if there in substantial evidence with no doubts that the increase is justified. The Supreme Court therefore holds that the judge can not sentence a convicted criminal for a term in prison that is more than the set maximum in the guidelines unless it is a case of recidivists.

In the federal and states judicial system, the sentencing of the offender was historically determined by the policy of either deterministic or indeterminate sentence. For many decades the indeterminate sentencing was the most dominant sentencing practice in both the federal and the state courts. However, major reforms took place in the last three decades of the 20th century where various states as well as the federal courts adopted deterministic sentencing. Deterministic sentencing led to the adoptions of federal sentencing guidelines to ensure that there was uniformity in the deterministic sentencing.

The traditional penal policy had its major objective as retribution and or punishment of the offender. However, the need for rehabilitation of the offender arose toward the end of the 19th century and the need for indeterminate sentencing that allow for the rehabilitation of the criminals arose in the federal judicial systems. Indeterminate sentencing was believed to be the best approach that would ensure that the sentence given to the offenders aimed at rehabilitation of the criminal rather that retribution or punishment. However the federal judicial system had an indeterminate sentencing scheme instituted by the congress that restricted the judges sentences. Typically, the parole panel had the responsibility of determining whether the criminal had fully rehabilitated after serving a third of the sentence and whether it was in the best interest of the offender and the society to release him from prison. However, the increased cases of violent criminal act in the second half of the 20th century raised concern among the members of congress which led to the judicial reform which included the federal sentencing laws. This led to the enactment of the sentencing reforms act of 1984 (Roberts, 1994).

For the better part of the 20th century, sentencing in federal courts was indeterminate and the criminals were not aware of how long they were likely to be in prison. The district court was the primary control of the federal sentencing. The congress enacted laws that set the maximum sentence term with very few provisions for exceptional cases. Indeterminate sentencing aimed at focusing the sentence on the individual offender and provides a system in which the offender could be rehabilitated and be accepted back into the society.  However, this sentencing was criticized for creating room for disparities and uncertainty of the sentences. This called for the abolishment of the unlimited discretion of the judge. The perceived failure of this form of federal sentencing due the high number of crimes reported and the disparities in sentencing resulted in some experiments on other sentencing system. Guidelines on sentencing were introduced in some states and later in the federal criminal judicial systems.  Although guidelines on sentencing were introduced in the federal system and also in the states systems, most states predominantly used indeterminate sentencing (Borman, 1999).

Before the adoption of sentencing in the federal and states judicial systems, the only option to the indeterminate sentencing was determinate sentencing. Determinate sentencing also called the fixed sentencing required offenders accused of certain offences be subjected a mandatory minimum sentence. Some of the current sentencing procedures are determinate where there are rules that establish the amount of punishment for offenders found guilty of certain offences. Most of the sentences today are such that the date of release is not subject to change and can not be reviewed. The determinate and indeterminate practices in the federal systems were however challenged by many people who argued that the practices were subject to abuse by the judicial officials and create disparities in administering of sentences. For example, the determinate sentencing was accused of fixing a sentence depending on the offence committed without considering the special characteristics of the offender and the circumstances under which the crime was committed. On the other hand in cases where indeterminate sentencing was applied, two offenders may have committed the same crime under similar circumstances and be subjected to varying sentences. Moreover, an offender may have committed a logically more grievous crime and be given a more linier sentence as compared to another who had committed a mild crime ((Seghetti, 2007).

In essence the sentencing reforms act of 1984 overruled indeterminate sentencing in the federal court systems which led to the establishment of sentencing guidelines. An independent body, United States sentencing commission was established by the act and was given the mandate to propagate sentencing guidelines in the federal judicial system. The commission was mandated to analyze cases of disparities in the federal sentencing practices among other aspects. To establish the sentencing guidelines the commission considered the nature and magnitude of the crime committed by the offender, the ability of the sentence to deter the offender from committing the crime again and the public opinion on the magnitude of the offence. They also considered the criminal record of the offender and the circumstances that can aggravate or mitigate the particular offence. The characteristics of the offender such as whether the offender is juvenile or adult, the level of education, occupation as well as mental and physical health was considered. Prior to the high court ruling on that made these guidelines advisory rather than mandatory, they were binding in all proceeding in the federal justice system and were subject to directives from the congress and the mandatory minimum punishment that were put in place by the congress for specific offences (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 1995).

The decision of the Supreme Court on the mandatory styled sentencing guidelines was based on the argument that they violated the sixth amendment. In the United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court argued that the mandatory guidelines denied the offender the right to be tried by the court and the provision that made the guidelines was overruled. However, these guidelines can either be voluntary, presumptive or statutory (Seghetti, 2007).

Before the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, the federal sentencing guidelines were presumptive. The guidelines were founded and contained in the congressional legislations which were administered by a body created by the legislation. The presumptive guidelines provided a predetermined range of punishment that can be passed against an offense. The penalty assigned to the offence is based on the history of the offender and how seriousness of the criminal offence committed. The guidelines are considered presumptive because the standard penalties are set for the offender that is presumed to fit the offender and the court is expected to rule according to these standards. However the standard guidelines were subject to departures had to be reviewed. After the Supreme Court ruling the guidelines on federal sentencing become advisory rather than presumptive. In such a case, the judge is not required to strictly follow the sentencing guidelines. He is however expected to use them to guide him or her on the judgment and make reference to them. The guidelines on sentencing may also be statutory where the rules in sentencing are determined by a legislative body. These guidelines are however different from presumptive guidelines. Both presumptive and statutory guidelines are created or approved by a legislative body. While the statutory guidelines are authorized directly by the legislation, a sentencing commission, created by legislation, establishes presumptive guidelines (U. S Sentencing Commission, 2007).

The federal courts can departure from the federal sentencing proceedings under special circumstances. The departure can take the form of substantial departures in circumstances under which the offender provides reasonable help to the prosecution process. The departure can either be upward or downwards but upwards are rare especially in case of substantial assistance. Although these departures are available to the court, the guidelines have explicit prescription on when departure from the guideline is warranted. Departures are not available in most cases because the sentencing commission had exhausted all the possible factors that can be considered in a case making departure in majority of the cases in the federal courts legally not allowed.  It was also assumed by those against departures that they led to unfair disparities in the sentences and therefore should be eliminated. Departures offer a chance to the court to pass a penalty outside the set range in the sentencing guidelines. Through these departures the judge can increase or decrease the penalty against an offender inappropriately which may result into problems. However, departures are not always negative tools against the due process of the law. Departure can be used to pass a fair sentence to the offender by tailoring the sentence to suit the circumstances of the committed crime (Torny and Hatlestad, 1997).

The federal sentencing guidelines identify several levels of offences. The level of the offense is determined by the seriousness of the committed offense. Every crime is allocated a base level which provides the base from which the seriousness of the crime is determined. More serious crime such as kidnapping (base offence level of thirty two) has higher base level compared to less serious offences such as trespass (base level of four). Each offense has it own characteristics which are also considered in addition to the base level. These characteristics are factors that vary from one crime committed to another and may contribute to the seriousness of the offense by increasing or decreasing the offense base level. The sentence given to the offender is determined by the base offense level (Greenlee, 1997).

However, there are adjustments that are applicable to all offenses. These adjustments can also increase or decrease the seriousness of the offense. Adjustments occur in cases where the participation of the accused in the offense has been proved to have been minimum in which the base offence level goes down by four levels. An adjustment can also be based on the cognitive abilities of the offender where he or she may be juvenile or mentally sick such that he is unable to determine the vulnerability of the victim. However, the adjustment can also be upwards for example in a case where the offender is guilty of abstracting justice in the proceedings (West Publishing Company, 1994).

The federal judicial system has undergone various changes over the years. The sentencing in the federal court has moved from the traditional indeterminate and determinate sentencing to the establishment of sentencing guidelines in 1984. However, the guidance was seen to violet the sixth amendment and therefore was abolished in 2005 by the Supreme Court.  The abolishment gave the offender the right to be tried by the jury.


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