Prior to the late 1980s, the federal statutes on sentencing allowed a wide range of punishments. Judges often handed down penalties that seemed almost arbitrary, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. Then, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 paved the way for the first USSC Guidelines Manual in 1987, which narrowed the limits of federal sentences.
However, courts continued to increase sentences based solely on judges’ application of evidence, without appealing to juries. In United States v. Booker in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared this practice unconstitutional. Thus, the USSC created the Booker Three-Step Process to help courts remain objective if a specific case warrants punishment outside of the set guidelines.
In the sentencing phase of a federal trial, the court must first consult the Guidelines Manual and determine the range of penalties considering your offense category, level (severity), and criminal history. For example, only a few statues make prison time compulsory. Most allow the option of either probation or imprisonment, depending on the facts of your case. If this is your first low-level offense, a judge may incline toward leniency.
Chapter Five of the Guidelines Manual outlines departures, or factors which can influence the court to issue a sentence above or below the statutory limits. For instance, you may receive a downward departure — or a lower sentence recommendation — if you help the prosecution with another case. Conversely, if you have a prior history of the offense outside of U.S. jurisdiction, it could warrant an upward departure.
Finally, the court must lay out all of the elements assembled in the first two steps and view them alongside seven other factors outlined in U.S.C. 3553(a). These include considerations such as:
- How the sentence will serve the purposes of incapacitation, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation
- How the sentence compares to those issued previously for similar offenses
- How the sentence may provide restitution to victims
The complete evaluation of these components should help the judge issue a sentence that the Guidelines Manual defines as “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.”