Federal Sentencing Guidelines | What You Need To Know

Over the last few decades, the United States has been overrun with politicians telling us to elect them because they believe in locking up criminals – particularly drug criminals – and simply throwing away the key. Being “tough on crime” vis-a-vis federal sentencing guidelines became so ubiquitous in political discourse, it seeped into American culture as just the way things are, and should be.

In fact, the notion of being “tough on crime” emphasized a fascinating instinct in American society, something that apparently is quite common for humans – the classic mentality of us vs. them. Being “tough on crime” as a mantra allowed most Americans to view criminals as the “other,” as the “bad people,” as the “people who don’t deserve a second chance.”

Not surprisingly, the “tough on crime” way of thinking manifested itself in ever-increasing sentences for an ever-increasing number of crimes, most particularly drug crimes. Given that America is ostensibly mired down in a never-ending “war on drugs,” the federal drug sentences just ended up getting longer and longer.

Any concept of mercy, or rehabilitation, was simply strangled out of our society’s collective psyche. Listening to our “tough on crime” politicians, we understood that people who committed crimes did not deserve anything and were worth even less. Little did we know, however, the “tough on crime” slogan was just red meat to the electorate so politicians could get a gig. It was not a way in which to deal effectively with the drug problem in America.

federal sentencing guidelines

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

One interesting facet of the “tough on crime” position for politicians was the related push towardsuniformity in sentencing. Fearful of judges having too much discretion in sentencing, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines came about as a way in which to ensure uniform sentencing throughout the country. Because of their impact on federal sentencing since the 1980s, it is important to have a short overview of the origins and mission of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

The Origin of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The Judicial branch of our federal government houses an independent agency called the United States Sentencing Commission. The Commission has seven voting and two non-voting members. The Commission’s purpose is to establish sentencing policies for the federal criminal justice system.

In 1984 as part of comprehensive crime legislation, Congress passed The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which gave the Commission broad authority to review and rationalize the federal sentencing process. Specifically, the Act directed the Commission to create categories based on the kind of crime (robbery, for example) and the kind of criminal (a person with two priors, for example). The Commission was then to formulate guideline ranges based on those two categories that would result in a recommended sentence.

The Act allowed for the Guidelines to have some stop-gap provisions that permitted a judge to make upward or downward changes to the suggested sentence based on specific circumstances. Interestingly, the Act also abolished parole, and reduced and restructured good behavior adjustments.

The result of the legislation became what is now known as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The Guidelines currently work essentially in the way the Act envisioned.  Namely, the two base categories -- offense conduct, and criminal history of offender -- are put into a formula that also allows for specific factors permitting upward or downward departures.

The Three Goals of the Guidelines

Congress had three goals in mind with regard to the creation of the Guidelines: (1) Honesty, (2) Uniformity, and (3) Proportionality. With regard to honesty, the Act removed parole from the equation. Therefore, the past practice of a court sentencing someone to an indeterminate sentence and then allowing the parole commission to sort out the actual sentence was taken away. The sentence imposed by the court was the sentence the defendant would serve, less time for good behavior.

With regard to uniformity, the Guidelines were meant to narrow wide disparities in sentences throughout the country for roughly the same crime committed by similar offenders. By having courts run the two main categories (type of offense and type of offender) and other factors through a type of formula, some uniformity could be achieved.

With regard to proportionality, there was some tension with the goal of uniformity. Having only a few simple categories of offenses and offenders would be easy to administer, but it would fail to take in the various complexities of different crimes. For example, should armed robbery and unarmed robbery fall under one “robbery” umbrella, or should there be allowances for use of a weapon?

The Guidelines attempt to address the uniformity/proportionality tension by having many factors to consider, but not so many as to make the system unworkable.

Have the Guidelines Been a Success?

Since their promulgation in the mid-80s, the Guidelines have been in use, and they have been consistently updated and amended. Most significantly, the Guidelines were rendered advisory by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 after being declared unconstitutional, if applied mandatorily, in United States v. Booker.

One may have differing points of view on how successful the Guidelines have been over the years. One thing is clear, however, and that is the Guidelines are prominent in most every federal sentence imposed in the country today.

Statistics show that the United States is still, and has been for years, the world’s leader in incarceration. While those statistics include both federal and state sentences, it is hard not to conclude that the combination of politicians’ “tough on crime” stance and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have had the result of imposing comparatively higher sentences than other countries in the world.

It is often good to lead the world. But, do we want to be the world’s leader of citizens who are sitting in prison?

For more information about the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, or if you need a qualified , aggressive sentencing attorney to assist you, contact Brandon Sample, Esq. at 802-444-4357 today for a free consultation. Alternatively, request a free consultation online.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).


  1. MELODIE Kennedy on April 16, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Randy my name is melodie Kennedy I’m Chad Heath Hallowell wife we’ve been in touch with you before and he wanted me to get in touch with you and see if what’s going on will help him on the guidelines I don’t really understand all this but if you could text me back when you have a chance and let me know kind of what’s going on and if you know if he’s eligible for what there maybe trying to do thank you so much

    • Brandon Sample on April 18, 2018 at 6:33 pm


      Please feel free to reach out to my office directly at 802-444-4357. Thanks!

  2. Amanda Adkins on July 27, 2019 at 2:21 am


    Thank you for your amazing work with our system. If I could please speak with you regarding my loved one case.

    Thank you for your time!

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