Congressional Republicans Call for Federal Sentencing Reform

According to a recent NPR report, some Congressional Republicans believe that the current federal sentencing protocol is not working. They contend that a number of disparities have arisen, and that uniformity must be restored across federal districts. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, (R-Wisconsin) explained to NPR that federal crimes should be punished equally regardless of where the crime was committed. As an example, he highlighted that federal judges in New York City commonly imposed sentences below the guidelines, while judges in Upstate New York were still following them.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Born from the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the federal sentencing guidelines have long been a topic of heated debate. The guidelines call for federal judges to use a point system that considers the severity of a particular offense, unique offender characteristics and other relevant factors when determining criminal sentences.

Before the guidelines, sentences could vary greatly from district to district as federal court judges weighed factors subjectively based upon their interpretation of the facts involved. As such, lawmakers sought uniform punishments that would apply across all districts. Congress envisioned modest increases in costs and incarcerations to implement the new guidelines, but the federal prison population quadrupled over the next 20 years, so costs exploded accordingly.

Financial implications aside, the guidelines have seen a number of challenges. Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys have had continual difficulties defining offender behavior and determining how they fit into guidelines. This was especially problematic in dealing with the crack epidemic in the 1980's and early 90's. Convictions for five grams of crack cocaine would yield the same five-year minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is essentially a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity. Also, as Internet pornography became more pervasive, those who unwittingly downloaded illicit photographs faced stiff mandatory minimum sentences that did not necessarily reflect the crime committed.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court made a fundamental change in how federal judges would apply the guidelines. Through U.S. v. Booker, the Court essentially made sentencing guidelines "advisory", instead of mandatory, in order to protect criminal defendants' Sixth Amendment rights. The Booker decision followed a number of constitutional challenges to sentences meted through the guidelines.

Nevertheless, calls for change continue to arise.

Douglas Berman, a law professor and sentencing expert at Ohio State University told NPR that many judges think the guideline punishments are too tough, especially in the areas of corporate fraud and Underage Pornography, where presumptive sentences can start at 20 years in prison. Racial disparities still remain a concern, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently reported that average sentences facing black males were 20 percent longer than those for white males.

In the meantime, the House Judiciary Committee is planning more hearings on the issue of sentencing reform, and the Sentencing Commission will continue to study feedback from judges in making recommendations. If you or a loved one is facing a federal crime charge, working with a skilled defense attorney with insight into the federal sentencing guidelines and the way in which particular district judges apply them can make a huge difference in the outcome of your case.