Federal Sentencing Guidelines — The Importance of United States v. Booker

The seminal case of United States v. Booker (2005) changed the way in which judges apply the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Before delving into the specifics of Booker, however, let’s dial back for some context. What are these sentencing guidelines, and why do we have them?

In the mid 1980s, lawmakers recognized that a lack of standardization was leading to unfair sentencing. For instance, different judges were handing out astronomically different sentences for similar crimes. To remedy this, Congress sought to standardize things by passing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The goals of this Act were good. The Act sought to get rid of sentencing disparity, provide transparency and fairness to the process, hand out punishment proportionate to crimes committed, and deter crime.

Unfortunately, the guidelines became extremely complicated. They now run thousands of pages. Essentially what they aim to do is to use several factors – including the “offense level” of the crime and the criminal history of the offender – to calculate a standard recommended minimum and maximum sentence. For instance, if you committed a level 22 offense, and you are a first time offender, the guidelines recommend 41 to 51 months in prison.

In 2004, the Supreme Court heard the case of Blakely v. Washington, which had to do with the constitutionality of these guidelines. In this case, a state judge tried to impose a longer sentence than the guidelines stipulated because he felt that the offender in a kidnapping had exhibited “deliberate cruelty.” But because the jury did not find that the defendant had acted with deliberate cruelty, this enhanced sentencing violated the defendant’s sixth amendment rights.

This brings us tor Booker. In this case, which the court decided on in January 2005, the defendant was charged with crack cocaine distribution. The jury found him guilty, but the judge after the fact determined that Booker had possessed more crack cocaine than the jury had realized. He thus ratcheted up the offense level. The Supreme Court ruled that federal judges cannot do this; they cannot determine facts beyond what a jury finds and what a defendant himself admits. Thus, like in Blakely, the sentence was modified downwards.

So what does this mean, practically, for you, if you or a loved one faces a federal criminal charge? It means that, to develop and systematically execute a sound federal criminal defense, you really need the guidance of a veteran attorney who has the credentials and track record to deliver. Even small mistakes or inaccuracies regarding how the Federal Sentencing Guidelines apply can potentially result in longer prison sentences and other serious consequences.