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What Are Sentencing Guidelines?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules contained within a uniform policy of sentences for those persons and organizations that are convicted of Class A misdemeanors or felonies. The convictions at issue derive from the U.S. federal court system. It is important to note that these sentencing guidelines do not apply to misdemeanors that are not as serious or significant as those classified as Class A misdemeanors.

What Organization Creates the Sentencing Guidelines?

Sentencing guidelines are created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Commission was started through enabling legislation in the form of 1984's Sentencing Reform Act. Federal sentencing guidelines were first enacted on a formal basis in 1987.

Additionally, many of the sentencing guidelines in use today, as well as the reforms made to such guidelines, are enacted and used at the individual state levels. State sentencing guidelines commissions are often charged with the task of evaluating and monitoring adult and juvenile sentencing practices, policies, and procedures. The state commissions also make specific recommendations to state officials on criminal justice matters. Finally, the commissions at the state level operate as educational and informational centers on the topics of adult and juvenile sentencing in the criminal justice field.

What Is the Objective of Sentencing Guidelines?

The main objective of the sentencing guidelines was to end the disparities and differences in sentencing that were occurring in the sentencing system across the country. Another aspect of sentencing guidelines reforms was the abolishment of the parole system. Sentencing guidelines reforms were additionally enacted to ensure determinate sentencing.

What Is Determinate Sentencing?

Determinate sentencing is sentencing in which the limits are set at the time the sentence is first imposed and ordered. In the alternative, indeterminate sentencing has a maximum given sentence (and sometimes also a minimum sentence), but the actual sentence usually served is set by a parole board or commission after the convicted defendant has started to serve his or her sentence.

How Are Sentences Determined Under the Sentencing Guidelines?

Sentencing guidelines set sentences for criminal defendants based upon several factors. They include:

  • offense conduct—the behavior or actions associated with the offense and that contribute to the offense's level in the guidelines
  • criminal history of the defendant, which defines the criminal history category in the guidelines