What are Sentencing Guidelines?

Jodee Redmond

Sentencing guidelines were introduced as a way to impose more uniform sentences for similar offenses. Without general rules for judges to follow when determining the penalty to impose, the potential existed for considerable variations in sentencing. The accused could be facing the possibility of a harsher or more lenient sentence than the average, depending on which judge was hearing their case.

Sentencing guidelines help to give leeway to a judge who is deciding the punishment for a crime.
Sentencing guidelines help to give leeway to a judge who is deciding the punishment for a crime.

These guidelines give the judge some leeway in determining what level of punishment is appropriate in each case. Criminal defense attorneys argue that when minimum sentences form part of sentencing guidelines, judges are not able to consider all the circumstances of the case in regards to an appropriate punishment. Having guidelines about maximum sentencing gives the judiciary a framework to go by to determine what is appropriate in each case that comes before it.

The frequency of offenses can impact a criminal's sentence.
The frequency of offenses can impact a criminal's sentence.

Criminal sentencing guidelines are written so that judges take two factors into account when determining what an appropriate sentence is. One of these factors is the offender's previous criminal history, if any. The defendant's behavior before, during and after the commission of the crime are also relevant. The individual's conduct is used to determine the offense level in the sentencing guidelines chart.

The defendant's actions are used to determine an offense level for the crime in question. The previous criminal record, if any, is given a rating. The sentencing guidelines are contained in a written manual. When a judge needs to make a decision about sentencing in a particular case, he or she looks up the combination of the appropriate offense level and criminal history to see a suggested sentence.

Criminal sentencing guidelines also give judges the ability to impose a sentence of a specific length on the convicted individual. Otherwise, the judge could impose a sentence with no set ceiling, although it may involve a minimum number of years to be served. When the individual would be released would depend on a decision made by the parole board, and it wouldn't necessarily reflect the seriousness of the crime committed.

For example, a person who has been found guilty of a felony but who doesn't have a prior criminal history will not be sentenced as harshly as an individual who commits a similar crime but who has at least one previous conviction. Someone with a lengthy criminal record who commits a relatively minor offense may receive a harsher sentence, depending on how his or her previous history factors into the criminal sentencing guidelines. Since the guidelines include a range of time in custody, the judge has the tools he or she needs to choose a sentence that makes the punishment fit the crime.

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