Anyone who has been to federal court knows the special dread that comes with hearing those three words: Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These rules are designed to remove any leeway or uncertainty from criminal sentencing in federal courts. They work by applying a series of calculations to the sentence, and your actual penalty is based on a couple factors: the severity of the crime, and your own criminal history.
Why are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines unfair? Where to start? The most often-cited problem with them is that they have historically applied the word "severity" in a fairly arbitrary way, assigning drugs like crack a far more serious grade than powder cocaine. (This has since changed, but other relics of the same mindset remain.) It doesn't take a racial paranoid to catch the subtext here, and the widespread enforcement of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in inner city drug cases has only underscored the point.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines vs. Human Beings
The Guidelines are also unfair because they rob judges of their human judgment. The simple fact is that not every repeat offender has the same life story or prognosis for recidivism; the best way to determine true fairness is to use your brain. Yes, the law was built to be applied without bias, but sentencing has traditionally been the place where a more intimate and situational knowledge helped humanize our criminal courts. Today the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have largely reduced the role of experienced judges to that of Glorified Calculator, and countless defendants receive overharsh sentences every year as a result.
Work the System
So what can you do about it? Step one: retain a good criminal defense attorney. The Guidelines may not allow much leeway in the doling out of sentences, but there is no law against getting your charges knocked down beforehand. An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can work the system, plea down your charges and get them reduced long before the dreaded three words are applied. So make a phone call and seek out the advice of a true expert in this corner of the law. You could shave years off your sentence, and depending upon the circumstances, even bypass prison altogether.