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sentencing: an overview

A criminal sentence refers to the formal legal consequences associated with a conviction. Types of sentences include probation, fines, short-term incarceration, suspended sentences, which only take effect if the convict fails to meet certain conditions, payment of restitution to the victim, community service, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation for minor crimes. More serious sentences include long-term incarceration, life-in-prison, or the death penalty in capital murder cases.

Criminal law theorists believe that sentences serve two purposes. First, they serve the goal of deterring future crime by both the convict and by other individuals contemplating a committal of the same crime. Second, a sentence serves the goal of retribution, which posits that the criminal deserves punishment for having acted criminally. When sentencing, a judge must impose the least severe sentence that still achieves both goals, while also considering the need for societal protection.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Prior to the 1980s, the federal courts used an indeterminate sentencing system, which allowed trial judges to impose sentences entirely at their discretion. Research, however, revealed that this system created sentencing disparities in which different criminals received very different sentences for the same crime. In a bi-partisan reform effort, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which included provisions that make up the Sentencing Reform Act.

Endeavoring to transition to a determinate sentencing system, the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) created the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) as an independent agency of the Judicial Branch. Congress charged the USSC with writing and promulgating the new determinate sentencing code. The system devised by the USSC required federal judges to ensure that the sentence reflects the gravity of the crime, that the punishment furthers the goal of deterrence, that the sentence protects the public from further crimes by the criminal, and that the criminal receives any necessary treatment, medical care or education to further the goal of rehabilitation. While judges still had flexibility, the SRA imposed mandatory minimum and maximum sentence within which the judge's sentence had to fall.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the USSC and its system in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 362 (1989), despite a challenge that Congress's delegation to the USSC of such broad power unconstitutionally violated the Separation of Powers doctrine.

Congress established the United States Sentencing Commission to produce federal sentencing guidelines, prescribing specific sentence minimums and maximums for specific federal crimes. The prescribed sentences take into account the particular criminal conduct and whether the convicted defendant had any previous criminal history. Although intended to have binding force, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 20 (2005) struck down the provisions that made the guidelines mandatory as violative of the Sixth Amendment's jury trial guarantee, and the Court directed the federal appellate courts in the future to consider only whether the trial court had selected a reasonable sentence. This decision came on the heels of the Supreme Court having struck down a similar Washington state sentencing scheme in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), for the same reason.

Booker rendered the Federal Guidelines merely advisory and has in the process created a flurry of further questions. In Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. ___ (2007), the Supreme Court clarified that the circuit courts may presume an imposed sentence falling within the Guidelines' sentencing range to be reasonable. In Gall v. United States (06-7949) (2008) the Supreme Court reaffirmed Booker, holding that trial court judges have the power to prescribe sentences less than the Federal Guidelines' "mandatory" minimums, provided they offer reasons for doing so. The Supreme Court in Irizarry v. United States (06-7517) (2008) determined that trial judges also could impose a sentence above the Guidelines' statutory maximum without providing prior notice to the defendant that the judge might consider such a heightened sentence. In Greenlaw v. United States (07-330) (2008), the Supreme Court determined that absent an appeal or cross-appeal from the parties involved regarding the question of a sentence's reasonability, appellate courts lacked the authority to amend a sentence on their own initiative.