Sentencing guidelines in the United States are complex and varied, depending on the type of crime that the individual committed. Usually, sentencing guidelines are concerned with felonies and more serious misdemeanors (“2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual,” 2010). Usually sentencing guidelines are given when the individual who has committed a crime has been convicted of a Class A misdemeanor or higher-- that is, they have committed the highest possible class of misdemeanor, or they have committed a felony. When an individual commits a crime that carries more than one year of jail time as a mandatory sentence, they have committed a felony (“2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual,” 2010). Sentencing guidelines are designed and implemented by the United States Sentencing Commission, which is an arm of the judicial branch of the United States government (“2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual,” 2010).
The Sentencing Commission has not always been accepted as part of the government without question. There have been a variety of different constitutional questions regarding the legality of the commission, particularly because it was seen as an unconstitutional extension of the powers of the Executive Branch (National Institute of Justice, 2012). The Sentencing Commission was formed by Congress, which is why the constitutionality of the Commission was originally questioned; however, in the majority decision in Mistretta v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the formation of the Commission and the rights that Congress granted to the Commission (National Institute of Justice, 2012).
However, another landmark Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, stated that making the Commission’s guidelines mandatory violated the individual’s right to a trial by jury, which is a serious Sixth Amendment violation (“An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission,” 2010). Today, the Commission still exists, but its guidelines are considered recommendations for sentencing, rather than mandatory sentencing (“An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission,” 2010).
The Sentencing Commission is a permanent entity within the judicial branch of the United States federal government. The Commission itself is made up of seven experts, all of whom are chosen by the President, and then confirmed by Congress; these members each serve for six years on the Sentencing Commission (National Institute of Justice, 2012).
According to the Commission itself, its mission is to:
(1) to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes; (2) to advise and assist in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and (3) to collect, analyze, research, and distribute a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as an information resource for Congress (“An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission,” 2010)
The goals of the Sentencing Commission reflect the goals of sentencing guidelines in general. Sentencing guidelines are very important for the criminal justice system because they help to ensure that individuals who commit similar or the same crimes are treated in the same way by the justice system itself (“An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission,” 2010).
According to the Sentencing Commission, sentencing guidelines have a few key factors that must be considered when creating a sentencing guideline for a specific crime (2010). The purposes of sentencing are to consider just punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, each of which are considered carefully when creating a guideline for sentencing for a particular crime (“An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission,” 2010).
The first issue, the issue of just punishment, is one that is fundamentally important to the United States judicial system. Indeed, the requirement for just punishment is ensconced in the Fifth Amendment to the Bill of Rights (Lawrence, 1991). When an individual commits a wrong against society in some way, it is the judiciary’s job to ensure that they are punished for their transgression. However, the punishment for the transgression must fit the crime; if the punishment is too severe, then the punishment is in violation of the individual’s Fifth Amendment rights
The idea of just punishment for a specific crime comes in many different forms. The American judicial system takes into account a variety of different factors when it comes to sentencing an individual for a crime that he or she has committed; there is a general sentencing guideline for the judiciary to follow, but there can also be “departures” from the guidelines based on the facts of the case (Bibas, 2004).
For instance, if an individual commits a crime while under duress, then he or she may have his or her sentence reduced based on the severity of the duress and the type of duress inflicted on the individual (“The Federal Sentencing Guidelines-How Will they Impact Your Sentence?” 2010). This is a downward departure from the sentence. There are also upward departures: for instance, if someone dies during the commission of a felony, then the individuals who were committing the felony can be charged with the death of the victim-- an upward departure from the original felony (“The Federal Sentencing Guidelines-How Will they Impact Your Sentence?” 2010).
There are many different categories of departures, and they are all designed to make the sentencing of the individual more fair-- not only more fair to the individual, but to society as a whole as well. If an individual commits a crime and gets off easily based on a technicality and the judge has no recourse or no ability to impose a harsher punishment by departing from the sentencing guidelines, then a gross miscarriage of justice for society as a whole has occurred.
Sentences that are imposed may include jail or prison time, community service, or monetary fines (“The Federal Sentencing Guidelines-How Will they Impact Your Sentence?” 2010). The type of sentence that is imposed in any given case will, as previously stated, hinge on the severity of the crime and the extenuating factors
The Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the Bill of Rights deal exclusively with the rights of individuals in criminal proceedings. The Fifth Amendment protects the individual’s right to due process, and protects the individual from having to incriminate him or herself at trial (“Impact of the Sentencing Guidelines on the Certainty and Severity of Punishment,” n.d.). The Sixth Amendment allows the individual a trial by jury, ensures that the individual has a right to an attorney, and asserts that the individual should be allowed a speedy and public trial (“Impact of the Sentencing Guidelines on the Certainty and Severity of Punishment,” n.d.). Lastly, the Eighth Amendment states that an individual is protected from excessive bail, and cannot be subjected to cruel or unusual punishments (“Impact of the Sentencing Guidelines on the Certainty and Severity of Punishment,” n.d.).
These Constitutional rights and considerations are fundamentally important when it comes to creating sentencing guidelines for particular crimes. The Eighth Amendment in particular is quite divisive, because deciding what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is a particularly political issue-- the entire death penalty debate, for instance, is built upon a question of the legality of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.
Sentencing is a complex issue that can be particularly difficult for those imposing the sentences. If a sentence is too lenient, then the individual may not be deterred from committing another similar (or worse) crime in the future; however, studies have shown that non-violent offenders who are sentenced to excessive jail or prison time often become violent offenders (Bibas, 2004). Balancing the spirit of the law with the letter of the law is certainly an art.
Bibas, S. (2004), The Feeney Amendment and the Continuing Rise of Prosecutorial Power to Plea Bargain, 94, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Lawrence, R. (1991). The Impact Of Sentencing Guidelines On Corrections. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 5 (3), pp.207-224.
National Institute of Justice (2012). Key Legislative Issues in Criminal Justice: The Impact of Sentencing Guidelines. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.nij.gov/pubs-sum/161837.htm [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].
Prison Consulting Group (2010). The Federal Sentencing Guidelines-How Will they Impact Your Sentence? [online] Retrieved from: http://www.prlog.org/10482187-the-federal-sentencing-guidelineshow-will-they-impact-your-sentence.html [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].
Sentencing.us (2011). Sentencing Guidelines Calculator. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.sentencing.us/ [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].
Unknown. (n.d.). Impact of the Sentencing Guidelines on the Certainty and Severity of Punishment. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.ussc.gov/Research/Research_Projects/Miscellaneous/15_Year_Study/chap2.pdf [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].
Ussc.gov (2010). 2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.ussc.gov/Guidelines/2010_guidelines/index.cfm [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].
Ussc.gov (2010). An Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.ussc.gov/About_the_Commission/Overview_of_the_USSC/USSC_Overview.pdf [Accessed: 2 Apr 2013].