Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The Reality of Federal Sentencing: Beyond the Criticism

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The Reality of Federal Sentencing: Beyond the Criticism

Article excerpt


From no other governmental institution is so much expected as from the American system of justice. Covered extensively by the media, monitored closely by the public at large and administered by proponents of differing philosophies, our system always has and always will be subject to debate, both within and without the ranks of those who administer it. At the pinnacle of that debate stands the process of sentencing. Because the sentencing process defines our values in a variety of ways, everyone has a vested interest in it. Therefore, legislators and practitioners have known for a long time that the sentencing decision is of such magnitude that it should not be rendered without some common basis in logic and reason if fairness is to prevail.

A little more than a decade ago, Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines,1 a landmark initiative intended to bring uniformity and proportionality to federal sentencing. The principal goal was to improve the sentencing process in particular and the criminal justice system in general. Critics, then and now, raised serious concerns about the propriety of the Guidelines. This Essay will address three specific arguments often raised against the Guidelines: that the Guidelines are too severe on certain offenders, that they are too complex, and that they are too rigid. This Essay will debunk each of these three myths by examining the history of the Guidelines, recent sentencing data, and a frontline practitioner's personal experience.


A fair assessment of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1997 cannot be made outside of the context of federal sentencing policy as a whole. We must remember that the last time that legislators and practitioners agreed on the issue of federal sentencing policy was during the debate about whether or not to abandon a sentencing system of unfettered discretion and adopt a system of guidelines.2 We also must remember that while many advocates of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines welcomed the introduction of an equation that would reduce leniency, others advocated a way to eliminate overly harsh sentences. Because so much was expected of this radical new concept, it was predictable that a system born out of such divergent aspirations would ultimately violate the philosophy of a certain segment of its initial advocates. Because our previous system was flawed by unwarranted disparity and unequal sentencing of similarly situated defendants, legislation to introduce sentencing reform at the federal level was signed into law by President Reagan in 1984.3 That law authorized the creation of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch of the government charged with developing and monitoring sentencing policies for the federal courts. Congress gave the Sentencing Commission authority to promulgate sentencing guidelines subject to congressional review that prescribed the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes. The enabling statute directs the Commission to:

1) effectuate the statutory purposes of sentencing specified in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)(2), (i.e., just punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation);

2) provide certainty and fairness in meeting these purposes by avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparity among offenders with similar characteristics convicted of similar criminal conduct while permitting sufficient judicial flexibility to account for relevant aggravating and mitigating factors; and

3) reflect, to the extent practicable, advancement in the knowledge of human behavior as it relates to the criminal justice process.4

On April 13,1987, the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress its original sentencing guidelines and policy statements.5 On November 1 of that year, after the six-month compulsory period of review, the initial set of Federal Sentencing Guidelines became effective. …

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