Redefine Federal Sentencing

By Scuro, Joseph | Law & Order, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Redefine Federal Sentencing


Scuro, Joseph, Law & Order


In 1984, the United States Congress passed into law the sentencing Reform Act. These newly created federal statutes had the impact of mandatory determinative sentencing where convictions under federal now required a definite penalty. Commonly termed Federal Sentencing Guidelines, these statutes were to provide uniformity in the imposition of criminal punishment nationwide.

As stated in 28 USC 991, "Avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar criminal conduct" was of paramount importance when these statutes were enacted by Congress.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines look to an almost mathematical formula that takes into account the nature of the base offense, past criminal record, assistance to law enforcement, and other factors for consideration. As a result, the final sentence imposed can be enhanced or reduced when the final numerical figure was determined.

Although criticism of these mandatory sentencing provisions continued to be raised, it was not until 2000 that the United States Supreme Court began to indicate its concerns over their ability to pass constitutional requirements.

In Apprendi v New Jersey, the Supreme Court held that, with the exception of a conviction, any other factors used for the purpose of sentencing-punishment enhancement requires determination by a jury. To permit a judge alone at the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution to make and consider matters other than a conviction to increase the degree of punishment, according to the Supreme Court, would be in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

While Apprendi v New Jersey did not strike down the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as unconstitutional, it did send a clear message that the truth of any accusation against a defendant must be confirmed and reviewed by a jury, and that these accusations alone without sufficient supportive facts are irrelevant for purposes of punishment enhancement absent jury validation.

In 2002, in Ring v Arizona, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the doctrine it established in Apprendi v New Jersey, and reversed a sentence and punishment enhanced by judicial determination exclusively as in violation of constitutional provisions of the Sixth Amendment.

In Blakely v Washington, the Supreme Court reviewed an enhanced sentence pursuant to the State of Washington's Sentencing Reform Act. In that case, pursuant to the state statute, a defendant who plead guilty had his punishment increased despite no jury determination or admission by him as to those facts used as the basis for punishment enhancement by the court. …

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