How Much Discretion Does a Federal Judge Have Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
As experienced Boston criminal defense lawyers know, the law governing sentencing in Federal criminal cases has changed significantly over the past 25+ years. When the Congress mandated Federal judges follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines it deprived them of sentencing discretion that they had previously enjoyed. Here is a brief overview of how the Federal sentencing judge’s role has changed over the years:
In 1984, Congress enacted the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as part of the Sentencing Reform Act. Prior to the enactment of the Guidelines, Federal judges had a tremendous amount of discretion in sentencing a defendant. A Federal judge could accept or reject most types of information about a defendant, as long as the sentence ultimately imposed was not greater than the maximum penalty under the applicable statute.
The 1984 enactment of the Guidelines severely restricted judges from using discretion in sentencing defendants. The Guidelines established sentencing factors that carried specific sentencing consequences. A judge was required to consider a defendant’s criminal history and the level of the criminal offense committed. Based on these and other factors, the court imposed a sentence within the established Guideline range. By requireing judges to impose the Guidelines mandated outcome, judges were deprived of actually exercising their judgment based on their own interpretation of the facts of the case and the moral character of the accused. Simply put, no matter what the judge thought of the quality of the U.S. Attorney’s case, the judge could not independently sentence the defendant outside of the established Guideline range.
Critics noted that the Guidelines greatly shifted sentencing power from judges to Federal prosecutors, with regrettable results. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court responded in United States v. Booker. In Booker, the Court re-established judicial discretion, holding that while Federal judges must consider the Guideline ranges for sentencing, they are free to tailor individual sentences based on additional statutory concerns and fairness. Now, a Federal judge may impose a sentence outside the Guideline range, provided that the judge provide a written explanation of the factors he weighed in reaching his decision. This provides Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers with an opportunity to influence the judge’s decision.
If you are charged with a Federal crime, an experienced Boston criminal defense attorney can make sure the judge has all the relevant evidence needed to make an informed and fair sentencing decision in your case. If you would like to discuss your case with a lawyer, please contact us at 617-492-0055 or using our online contact form to schedule a free in-office consultation.
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