What are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

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  • Written By: Jim B.
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2020
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Federal sentencing guidelines are a method of guidelines used in the United States by which a judge may determine punishment for a convicted criminal. Established in 1987, the guidelines were intended to provide predetermined guidelines for judges to impose a sentence, removing the power from parole boards to modify the sentence. A chart is used that determines the sentence when combining the nature of the offense along with the criminal history of the offender. Various circumstances may lessen or lengthen the sentence. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 limited the power of the federal sentencing guidelines, permitting judges to impose a sentence different from what the guidelines determine.

Current federal sentencing guidelines were established when members of the U.S. Congress became frustrated with what they perceived as inconsistencies in the sentencing rules at the time. In the previous format, a judge could impose a maximum or minimum amount of time for a criminal to serve, but the actual length of the sentence was dependent on the decision of a parole commission. When the new rules were adopted in 1987, judges gained the power to impose determinate sentencing that pinpointed the amount of time to be served.


The new federal sentencing guidelines pertain to all felonies and Class A misdemeanors. They are based on a chart which contains 43 different levels of offense, based on the seriousness of the crime committed, and six different levels of criminal history. By combining the two levels on the chart, a sentence is determined.

Several variations are built into the system that could adjust the sentencing levels depending on the circumstances of the crime. The base offense level of an offense may be raised by special characteristics of the crime, for example, such as the amount of harm done or the use of a weapon, while the level can be lowered by the criminal accepting responsibility for his or her actions or if he or she was a minimal participant in the crime. Judges may also make departures from the guidelines based on elements of the crime that are not specifically covered by the original guidelines.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2005 case that the federal sentencing guidelines violated the right of an accused to trial by jury as determined by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the power of the guidelines was mitigated. The ruling deemed that judges should no longer consider the guidelines to be mandatory when determining sentencing. They can still be used in an advisory capacity, but the judge's ultimate sentencing decision may diverge from the guidelines and can be subject to review by appellate courts.


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