An Introduction to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Jeff Papa
Partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP
Chris Kashman
Associate, Ice Miller LLP

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were originally imposed by Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA). This statute was an attempt to create a determinate sentencing system, which included large-scale elimination of parole and severe restriction of good time credit in order to create a system in which criminals would serve most or all of the time to which they were sentenced.

For nearly 100 years prior to the enactment of the SRA, the U.S. federal criminal system was an indeterminate sentencing system, under which “[s]tatutes specified the penalties for crimes but nearly always gave the sentencing judge wide discretion” in whether an individual should be incarcerated and for how long, and as to whether the use of parole was appropriate.

In order to establish the actual definitions and sentencing structure to be used under the SRA, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The purposes of this Commission were to assure the purpose of the new sentencing system was met “to avoid[ ] unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar criminal conduct while maintaining sufficient flexibility to permit individualized sentences when warranted by mitigating or aggravating factors not taken into account in the establishment of general sentencing practices;” and to reflect the current state of advancement of human knowledge regarding the criminal justice system. [Read entire article here]