Federal Sentencing Guidelines & Judicial Discretion

Federal Sentencing Guidelines & Judicial Discretion

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines set out a uniform sentencing policy for defendants convicted of felonies and serious misdemeanors in the United States federal court system. The United States Sentencing Commission was tasked with creating sentencing guidelines to emphasize fairness, consistency, and deterrence, and to craft tougher sentencing for white collar crimes. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines took effect in 1987.

The Guideline’s Sentencing Table calculates sentences based upon a number of factors, including  the defendant’s criminal history and the severity of the crime and harm caused.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines & Judicial Discretion

Until 2005 the Guidelines were mandatory. Judges did not have latitude to consider other factors, including aggravating or mitigating circumstances in sentencing. Then the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Booker, making the Federal Sentencing Guidelines non-binding and advisory in nature, instead of mandatory. 543 U.S. 220 (2005). Booker requires that a sentencing court consider the Guideline ranges but gave federal judges much more discretion in sentencing.

The question presented in Booker was whether mandatory application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right, because they may result in a sentence based on facts not proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury .

In Booker the trial judge held a post-trial sentencing proceeding and “concluded by a preponderance of the evidence” that Booker was guilty of obstructing justice and that he possessed more illicit drugs than the jury found him guilty of possessing. Id. Those findings by the trial judge mandated a sentence between 360 months and life in prison, whereas the crimes the jury found Booker guilty of would have mandated a sentence of 21 years and 10 months. Id. Because of the judge’s finding based on preponderance of the evidence, a far lower legal standard than the jury’s beyond a reasonable doubt standard, Booker was sentenced to 30 years in prison instead of 21 years and 10 months.

The Supreme Court held that the sentence violated the Sixth Amendment. After Booker the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were no longer mandatory because they may result in a sentence based on facts not proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

The Department of Justice reports that “within only one year of the Booker decision, the number of sentences imposed within the Guidelines has dropped to 62.2 percent.” The DOJ attributes the decrease in adherence to the Guidelines to judges exercising increased discretion under Booker.

Judicial Discretion & White Collar Crime Sentencing

Possible sentencing for conviction of federal while collar crimes are more difficult to predict since the Federal Sentencing Guidelines became advisory. Judicial discretion allows a judge to impose a harsher sentence for facts he or she finds based on a preponderance of the evidence, or alternatively, to hand down a more lenient sentence based on mitigating factors. One of the motivating reasons defendant’s enter into plea deals with prosecutors is to avoid the risks of trial. When sentencing is based heavily on judicial discretion, it is a serious factor to consider when weighing the benefits and drawbacks of accepting a plea deal.

Defending Against White Collar Criminal Charges

Ashley D. Adams is a former fraud prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She understands how federal white collar crimes are investigated and how prosecutors operate, and can use these insider experiences to mount a strong defense. Our firm is particularly knowledgeable regarding complex fraud cases. When you hire us, we will thoroughly investigate the evidence and we may be able to dismantle the case against you.

We will fight back for you and protect your rights. Contact us or call now (480) 219-1366 for a consultation. Have your questions answered and obtain the peace of mind that comes from having a former Assistant U.S. Attorney on your side.


The attorneys at Ashley D. Adams, PLC handle federal criminal cases throughout the United States, including Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, and California.