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The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that set out a uniform sentencing policy for convicted felons in the United States federal courts system.

Background

The Guidelines are the product of the United States Sentencing Commission and are part of an overall federal sentencing reform package that took effect in the mid-1960's. The implementation of this reform package was the result of bipartisan cooperation, led chiefly by Senator Edward Kennedy, as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Attorney General Edwin Meese. Their primary goal was to alleviate sentencing disparities that research had indicated was prevalent in the existing sentencing system, and the guidelines reform was specifically intended to provide for determinate sentencing. This refers to sentencing whose actual limits are determined at the time the sentence is imposed, as opposed to indeterminate sentencing, in which a sentence with a maximum (and, perhaps, a minimum) is pronounced but the actual sentence is determined by a parole commission or similar administrative body after the person has started serving their sentence. As part of the guidelines reform, the United States Parole Commission lost jurisdiction over most offenders. In general, indeterminate sentences are believed to support the rehabilitation and specific deterrence models of sentencing while determinate sentences are believed to support the general deterrence and just deserts models of sentencing.

The federal effort followed guidelines projects in several states, initially funded by the United States Department of Justicemarker, and led by Jack Kress and his research team during the late 1970s. The first sentencing guidelines jurisdictions were countywide, in Denvermarker (Colorado), Newark, New Jerseymarker, Chicagomarker (Illinois) and Philadelphiamarker (Pennsylvania). Statewide guidelines systems were next established in Utahmarker, Minnesotamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, Marylandmarker, Michiganmarker, Washingtonmarker, and Delawaremarker, before the federal sentencing guidelines were formally adopted in 1987. Given that the vast majority of criminal sentencing is done at the state level, the American Law Institute and the American Bar Association have each recommended such systems for all the states, and nearly half the states presently have such systems, although significant variations exist among them. For example, Minnesotamarker's Sentencing Guidelines Commission initially sought consciously not to increase prison capacity through guidelines. That is, Minnesota assumed that the legislature should determine how much would be spent on prisons and that the sentencing commission's job was to allocate those prison beds in as rational a way as possible. The federal effort took the opposite approach. It determined how many prisons would be needed and Congress was then essentially required to fund those beds.

United States v. Booker

Though the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were styled as mandatory, the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker found that the Guidelines, as originally constituted, violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and the remedy chosen was excision of those provisions of the law establishing the Guidelines as mandatory. In the aftermath of Booker and other Supreme Court cases, such as Blakely v. Washington (2004), Guidelines are now considered advisory only, on both the federal and the state levels. Judges must calculate the guidelines and consider them when determining a sentence but are not required to issue sentences within the guidelines. Those sentences are still, however, subject to appellate review.

Guidelines basics

The Guidelines determine sentences based primarily on two factors:
  1. the conduct associated with the offense (the offense conduct, which produces the offense level)
  2. the defendant's criminal history (the criminal history category)
The Sentencing Table [98894] in the Guidelines Manual [98895] shows the relationship between these two factors; for each pairing of offense level and criminal history category, the Table specifies a sentencing range, in months, within which the court may sentence a defendant. For example, for a defendant convicted on an offense with a total offense level of 22 and a criminal history category of I, the Guidelines recommend a sentence of 41–51 months, considering the year of the offense to be the same as the year of the guidelines. If, however, a person with an extensive criminal history (Category VI) committed the same offense in the same manner in the same modern timeline and not during the older guideline periods, the Guidelines would recommend a sentence of 84–105 months. [98896]

Guidelines can either be indeterminate or determinate and depend on the year of the offense. Simply observing the top column on the sentencing table would lead one to believe that the guidelines would apply directly. However, they are divided into 5 sections depending on the year of the first offense and may be applied selectively. The Guidelines manual, therefore, needs to be read in the context of the previous guideline manuals in order to arrive at a sentencing determination. Conduct is irrelevant in the context of determinate guidelines while criminal history is irrelevant in the case of indeterminate guidelines.

See also



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