Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a political football

As we all learned in school, our federal government has three separate branches each having a distinct role to play. The legislative branch makes the laws and the judicial branch applies those laws to individual situations. In some situations, these lines can become blurred such as when policy makers attempt to require judges to impose specific sentences.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines were advisory rather than mandatory. This provided judges with additional leeway to use their discretion to consider the unique facts and circumstances of each individual case. But now, some members of Congress are seeking to change this and institute lengthy mandatory sentences.

Proposing and advocating for severe federal sentences is almost always a sure-fire means of scoring political points. Politicians often argue in favor of harsher mandatory sentences with a dramatic anecdote of some horrible crime, thus attempting to shape an entire public policy based on a single abhorrent example. Rarely, if ever, do the facts of any specific criminal case stack up against the nightmare examples used to incite fear and influence politicians.

In real life, criminal cases are much more nuanced and complicated. There may be any number of reasons why a severe mandatory minimum sentence would be inappropriate in a particular situation. It is important that courts have the ability to consider mitigating circumstances that justify a downward departure from the sentencing guidelines. When facing federal criminal charges, it is important to work with an attorney who has a comprehensive understanding of how to best inform the court of these mitigating circumstances if the need should arise.

Source: National Public Radio, “GOP Seeks Big Changes In Federal Prison Sentences,” Carrie Johnson, Jan. 31, 2012