Sentencing Guidelines in Federal Court

The sentencing process in federal court is confusing, convoluted, and can, at times, produce truly unjust results. This is due in part to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The original intent behind the Guidelines was to help achieve more uniform sentencing across the country. Even though the Guidelines are no longer mandatory and have since been deemed advisory by the Supreme Court (meaning a judge can ultimately choose a sentence from a range anywhere between the minimum and maximum possible sentence set by statute), they continue to anchor, often imperfectly, the starting point in federal court for determining what is supposed to be a just and appropriate sentence under the circumstances.

The Guidelines become more problematic during sentencing where they contain language that is so hopelessly vague as to be meaningless. Unfortunately, many, many years ago, the Guidelines adopted language from the Armed Career Criminal Act, which the Supreme Court recently found in U.S. v. Johnson to be unconstitutionally vague. As a result, when someone qualifies as a career criminal under the Guidelines, their sentences have statistically doubled, increasing by at least seven (7) years.

Just last week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in U.S. v. Beckles; the issue is whether the Supreme Court should strike down the same language in the Guidelines which it found to be unconstitutional in Johnson, but in a different context. Surprisingly, a few of the justices began to ask questions which seem to suggest overall skepticism with the Guidelines, and not just with one of its many provisions. For example, early on in the argument, Justice Samuel Alito asked us to imagine if the Guidelines did not exist, and whether that might improve sentencing. Later, Justice Stephen Breyer commented to the government (which is tasked with defending the Guidelines) that he thinks there are “hundreds of examples” of language in the guidelines that “doesn’t make too much sense.” Justice Alito then made a similar observation (apparently he flipped open to a random spot in the Guidelines and began to discuss the phrase “more than minimal planning” which sounds totally and completely amorphous). Other justices commented on the way sentencing works in most states, where there are no guidelines; just a statutory maximum, sometimes a minimum, resulting in the judge being left with discretion to decide what is appropriate.

There are no perfect answers to sentencing. The Guidelines are but one answer, and their imperfections have long been debated and exposed. I seriously doubt the Supreme Court will blow up the Guidelines (I, frankly, don’t see how they can) via Beckles. I do think, however, the oral argument in Beckles signals both a coming change to the impact of the Guidelines on sentencing, as well as federal judges’ collective frustration over a perceived lack of discretion in the area they consider their exclusive purview. Beckles could be the vehicle of that change; or it may simply be the starting point for continued discussion.

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