Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Sentencing Reform Lessons: From the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to the Feeney Amendment

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Sentencing Reform Lessons: From the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to the Feeney Amendment

Article excerpt


For more than two decades, Congress has been on a mission to obtain uniformity in the federal sentencing system. What began with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 ("SRA"), and was soon followed by the Sentencing Guidelines, has been continually criticized by both the judiciary and the legislature. (1) In the spring of 2003, in what caught many interested parties off guard, Congress abruptly responded to the perceived inadequacies of the federal sentencing system by enacting the Feeney Amendment to the PROTECT Act ("The Prosecutorial Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003"), signed into law by President Bush on April 30, 2003. (2) The Act implemented sweeping reforms focused on eliminating trial judges' discretion to deviate from congressionally mandated sentences. (3)

The goal and structure of the SRA was to achieve uniformity in federal sentencing. (4) However, the PROTECT Act was enacted as a response to growing congressional sentiment in opposition to the post-SRA sentencing system. This sentiment was based on anecdotal case evidence of post-SRA sentencing disparity, political pressure to be tough on crime, and analyses of sentencing statistics. (5) Disparity and inequality in sentencing was often blamed on trial judges since they hold the ultimate authority to determine each defendant's sentence. (6) Thus, disparity amongst different defendants' sentences for similar crimes was perceived as resulting from judicial leniency. (7) Congress accumulated information suggesting that judges--particularly at the trial level--were not consistently following the congressionally mandated sentencing ranges; Congress reacted by instituting substantial changes to the sentencing structure through the PROTECT Act aimed at compelling uniformity. (8)

The PROTECT Act creates substantial debate as to whether unwarranted disparity existed in the federal sentencing system, whether the reforms will prove effective, and whether the reforms themselves will create new problems of greater magnitude in the sentencing system. While all of these questions raise very serious concerns regarding the PROTECT Act reforms, it is equally important to fully understand how and why the PROTECT Act became law and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it. The SRA removed most sentencing discretion from trial judges. (9) The PROTECT Act took another giant step by effectively removing what little discretion remained. It also served to greatly marginalize the judiciary's input into federal sentencing policymaking. Therefore, without a firm understanding as to why Congress felt compelled to reinforce and expand upon the SRA via the PROTECT Act, the judiciary faces the possibility of losing what scraps of sentencing discretion and policy input still remain.


The United States Constitution does not explicitly assign exclusive jurisdiction for federal sentencing to any one of the three branches of government. (10) The Legislative Branch has the power to define federal crimes and establishes the method and degree of punishment. (11) The Judicial Branch tries offenses and imposes punishments within the limits set by the legislature. (12) Finally the Executive Branch determines "where offenders will serve their time ... and supervise[s] them upon their release." (13)

For almost a century, Congress maintained a minor and indirect role in federal sentencing. (14) Congress delegated virtually "unfettered discretion to the sentencing judge to determine what the sentence should be" within a typically wide range of potential sentences as prescribed by statute. (15) Therefore, the judge controlled the "various goals of sentencing, the relevant aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the way in which these factors would be combined in determining a specific sentence." (16) Judicial sentences which fell within the prescribed range "were virtually unreviewable on appeal. …

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