Basics of Federal Criminal Sentencing: Sufficient But Not Greater than Necessary
Federal criminal sentencing is a complex and highly scrutinized aspect of the American criminal justice system. The goal of sentencing is to punish offenders while also considering factors such as rehabilitation, public safety, and the severity of the crime. However, sentencing practices have come under scrutiny in recent years due to concerns about fairness, consistency, and racial disparities. Federal judges are tasked with the difficult job of issuing a sentence that is sufficient, but not more than necessary to fulfill the statutory goals of criminal punishment. By law, the court shall consider (among other factors that don't always apply):
One of the most controversial aspects of federal criminal sentencing is the use of mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums require judges to impose a minimum sentence for certain offenses, regardless of the specific circumstances of the case. These guidelines were first introduced in the 1980s as part of the "War on Drugs" and were intended to provide a deterrent to drug trafficking and other serious crimes. However, mandatory minimums have been criticized for being overly harsh and not taking into account the unique circumstances of each case. Nowadays, user or small-time dealer amounts of drugs such as meth, crack, heroin and fentanyl can find themselves facing serious mandatory sentences with limited options for relief.
For example, a mandatory minimum of five years for possession of crack cocaine was criticized for being 100 times more severe than the mandatory minimum for the same amount of powder cocaine, which is more commonly used by white Americans. This disparity likely reflects racial bias in the criminal justice system, but definitely creates racial disparity in sentencing.
Another issue with mandatory minimums is that they limit the discretion of judges to consider individual circumstances, such as an offender's background or the nature of the crime. This has led to cases where low-level drug offenders receive longer sentences than violent offenders who commit more serious crimes. This has also contributed to the over-incarceration of certain populations, such as people of color and those living in poverty.
In recent years, there have been efforts to reform mandatory minimums and reduce their impact on the criminal justice system. The First Step Act, signed into law in 2018, provides some relief for offenders serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses, allowing judges to use their discretion to reduce sentences in certain cases. However, much work remains to be done to address the issues created by mandatory minimums.
So-called "relevant conduct" is another extremely controversial aspect of federal sentencing law. Possibly more so than mandatory minimums, because at least man mins are statutory, meaning that congress passed them into law. Relevant conduct, however, is an interesting creature of the sentencing guidelines and United States Supreme Court jurisprudence that made the guidelines discretionary and only requires proof "beyond reasonable doubt" for factual criminal allegations that raise the maximum possible sentence.
Relevant conduct allows a sentencing judge to increase a defendant's punishment based upon evidence of crimes related to the crime of conviction. Relevant conduct can significantly increase a defendant's prison sentence without the government proving the conduct happened beyond reasonable doubt! Frankly, it is outrageous. But until Congress, the courts, and/or the Sentencing Commission do something about it, that's the world we live in.
United States Sentencing Guideline 1B1.3(a)(1) governs relevant conduct and can result in punishment for the acts of others that are part of "jointly undertaken criminal activity" or conduct by the defendant that is part of a "common scheme or plan" or the "same course of conduct" as the crime of conviction. The outrageous part of it is that it can be based purely on hearsay, and the standard is a mere preponderance- all the government has to prove to the sentencing judge is that the conduct "more likely than not" happened. And on appeal, the judge will typically enjoy great deference in their findings, meaning that relevant conduct can be very difficult to fight. More information on relevant conduct can be found on this recent blog article I posted.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Discretionary but Persuasive
In addition to mandatory minimums, federal criminal sentencing also involves the application of sentencing guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission created these guidelines in 1987 to provide a consistent approach to sentencing across the country. The guidelines use a complex system that considers the offender's criminal history and the severity of the crime to determine a recommended sentence range.
While the guidelines are technically advisory, judges are required to consider them when determining a sentence. Critics of the guidelines argue that they lead to overly harsh sentences, particularly for low-level offenders. They also argue that the guidelines are overly complicated and can be difficult for judges to understand, leading to inconsistent application across the country.
In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the federal sentencing guidelines to make them more fair and consistent. In 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the guidelines to reduce the recommended sentence ranges for certain drug offenses. This change was made retroactive, allowing some offenders to seek reduced sentences.
Despite these efforts, concerns remain about the fairness and consistency of federal criminal sentencing. In particular, racial disparities in sentencing continue to be a major concern. Studies have shown that people of color are more likely to receive harsher sentences than white offenders, even when controlling for factors such as criminal history and severity of the crime.
Reform Efforts are Slow
Federal criminal sentencing is overly punitive and does not focus enough on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. The high rate of recidivism among federal offenders suggests that the current system is not effectively addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act. Among other things, the First Step Act expanded "safety valve" relief for defendants with limited criminal history, expanded the availability of "compassionate release" relief from sentences for "extra-ordinary" circumstances, and made reductions for crack cocaine sentences retroactive. The FSA also tasked the Bureau of Prisons with enacting policies to incentivize inmates to participate in activities designed to reduce their recidivism. By most accounts, the BOP has been very slow to enact these policies. Reforms to the safety-valve have yet to be adopted by the sentencing commission, which in 2022 finally formed a rule-making quorum for the first time since the FSA was passed. Compassionate Release motions are highly dependent on judicial discretion, and so large disparities can be found in the relief obtained under the expanded opportunities.
Hire an Attorney with Experience Defending Federal Cases and Investigations
Federal criminal sentencing is a complex aspect of the American criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums and the sentencing guidelines have come under scrutiny in recent years due to concerns about fairness, consistency, and racial disparities. Given the amount of discretion enjoyed by federal judges in deciding an appropriate sentence, it is important to have highly skilled and experienced legal counsel on your side. A robust investigation of mitigating factors can make a difference. Exploration of all possible avenues of relief from harsh sentencing policies requires dedication and expertise.
If you or a loved one is facing a criminal indictment, or has received communication from federal law enforcement that you are investigation, do not make the mistake of trusting your defense to a lawyer who is inexperienced in federal criminal matters. The result can be devastating. Raleigh criminal defense attorney Sean Cecil is experienced in defending federal indictments and investigations and is available for consultation and representation. Call now, or fill out the contact form in our sidebar.