If you face charges for a federal crime, whether a drug violation, white collar offense or violent crime, you may know that a conviction means facing mandatory sentencing over which the judge has little control. You may not realize that the courts use a formula for calculating the severity of the crime and your criminal history. Where these two factors intersect determines the sentence you will receive with minimal wiggle room up or down.
The development of mandatory sentencing guidelines for federal crimes in the late 1980s was to reduce the disparity of sentences based on race and other discriminatory factors. Studies showed that minorities tended to receive harsher sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes. With rigid sentencing guidelines in place, the hope was to eliminate that disparity. However, you may wonder whether the Congressional committee that formulated these guidelines has achieved that goal.
Criticism and unfair results
Challenges and appeals of the mandatory sentencing have failed to show that the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s guidelines are intentionally discriminatory. Nevertheless, many judges in federal courts complain that the inflexible sentencing guidelines leave them little room for justice and fairness. A young drug offender may spend 20 years behind bars with no possibility of parole, allowing little time or incentive for getting back on track.
Disparity still exists because some prosecutors are willing to plea bargain or reduce charges to avoid mandatory sentences, but others are not. In fact, one study showed that Blacks are less likely to receive a plea deal than Whites or Hispanics. Additionally, if you are facing a federal drug charge, your sentence depends on the amount of drugs involved. However, that amount may vary based on an arbitrary method of weighing the substance, potentially drastically affecting your sentence.
What does the future hold?
Since the implementation of the federal sentencing guidelines, most public defenders agree that the disparity issues have gotten worse. About half of judges agree that disparity in sentences along racial lines has increased with the mandatory sentencing, and they regret not having more discretion when sentencing offenders. In fact, some judges have stopped handling federal drug cases or resigned from the bench altogether because they cannot condone the unfair outcomes.
Long prison sentences are not effective deterrents to crime, according to current research. They also do little to provide more constructive options for an offender after a conviction. As criminal justice reforms slowly make their way across the country, you may be like many who hope to see more positive outcomes than harsh and unfair mandatory sentencing.