This article is meant to serve as an easy-to-read primer to help lawyers understand federal sentencing.
Over 25 years ago, before the Sentencing Guidelines went into effect, a federal judge could, with a few exceptions, sentence a convicted defendant to anything from probation to the statutory maximum. All that changed when the Sentencing Guidelines went into effect in 1987. The guidelines were part of a major overhaul of federal sentencing called the Sentencing Reform Act (the SRA). The SRA was supposed to correct what some politicians thought were unfair aspects of the old system, such as unexplained disparities in sentences, light sentences for white collar defendants and heavy sentences on blacks in many parts of the South, and a parole system that made it impossible to know how much time a particular defendant would actually serve. The SRA tried to solve these problems by creating a nearly mandatory guideline system. Under that system, a sentencing court would use the guidelines to determine a sentencing “range.” In most cases, the guidelines required a court to sentence a defendant somewhere within that range.