Common Criticisms of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines have been tested and modified several times since Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The original intent of the Act was to simplify and systematize sentencing at the federal level – to prevent, for instance, different judges from making arbitrary decisions about penalties and to streamline the process to reduce bureaucracy.
The guidelines aim to provide judges with minimum and maximum sentences for all manner of crimes. Theoretically, this should allow judges to rely on common sense and intuition while adhering to a preset standard of fairness. Guidelines should simplify sentencing.
The guidelines themselves (again, in theory!) are quite simple. Simply take the offense level of a crime, adjust that based on preset parameters, including the defendant’s criminal history, and then look to a table to find recommended minimum and maximum sentences. Then, apply judgment based on the facts of the case and other X-factors, and voila! You’ve got a sentence.
In practice, however, this has not been so simple. Experts have a number of bones to pick with the guidelines. Here are a few common criticisms:
1. Guidelines don’t simplify but in fact vastly complicate sentencing.
The federal appellate courts are practically overrun with appeals. An independent committee found that 90% of federal judges believe the guidelines increase rather than decrease workload.
2. The administration of the guidelines is expensive.
Even back in 1991, the US Sentencing Commission spent nearly $10 million annually just on administration. Those costs continue to go up.
3. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys often work out arrangements to sidestep guidelines – thus producing another set of disparities.
Remember, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 strove to enforce a national standard for fairness. But now, many experts believe, perhaps one third of all guilty pleas involve some evasion or side-stepping of the guidelines. This negates the fundamental principle of the guidelines.
4. Some criticize the guidelines for being too arbitrary.
The recommended penalties for child pornography and certain drug offenses, for instance, have come under fire for being way too harsh. Others have argued that certain recommended guidelines are too lenient. And still others have argued that the guidelines are not organized well enough to provide equal punishment for defendants of different races.
5. Guidelines may hinder flexibility.
By compelling judges to conform to an abstract standard for sentencing, the guidelines may hamper justice by interfering with decision-making based on unique circumstances.
6. Guidelines have resulted in longer prison sentences and virtually eliminated probation.
This drives overcrowding at prisons without yielding a safer society or an effective deterrent.
Obviously, all the above points can be debated, and it is probably not fair to say the guidelines are “good” or “bad.” Aspects of the present system likely work to deliver justice; other aspects likely thwart or at least hinder the effect of administration of reasonable justice.
Getting away from the abstract for a second…if you or a family member faces federal criminal charges, you want to prepare your defense. A free consultation with a successful and experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can be pivotal. A good lawyer – one who understands the theory and application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines – can explain your rights and responsibilities and come up with a powerful strategy to help fight the charges against you.