An Overview Of Criminal Sentencing Guidelines

An Overview Of Criminal Sentencing Guidelines

Criminal sentencing guidelines are used by many states and the Federal government for determining the length of time an adjudicated individual will spend in jail. These guidelines create standards for judges as a way to make efficient use of their time in handing down criminal sentences.

There are some who argue that sentencing guidelines that are based on strict law and order standards rob judges of their discretion when dealing with criminal cases. Extenuating circumstances and other factors that a judge should consider when sentencing a criminal defendant are often non-factors when using a government mandated criminal sentencing guideline. Here we will discuss the criminal sentencing guidelines for different types of crimes and what factors (if any) may be taken into consideration by a judge.

Standard Guidelines for Criminal Offenses

The guidelines for sentencing criminals are done on a state-by-state basis. Typically, sentences handed down by judges are a reflection of the opinions of the state’s legislature and its citizens toward crime and punishment. States that believe that society is too lenient toward criminals tend to hand down harsher penalties for seemingly minor offenses like occasional drug use. And there are states that believe that incarceration alone does not solve repeat behavior.

In 1994, the State of California started the “three-strike” law initiative as a way to address recidivism (a return to criminal behavior after incarceration). Twenty-eight states have passed similar laws as a way to remove repeat criminals from society. Other initiatives, such as truth-in-sentencing laws and mandatory minimums, have followed suit.

How Sentencing Guidelines Work in an Ideal World

True sentencing guidelines give judges a structured approach to punishment that is appropriate to the crime. One criticism of three-strike laws and the like is that when an individual who is a recidivist commits a non-felony third offense, guidelines may dictate that the individual be sentenced for a period of time that may be disproportionate to the crime committed.

The Pew Charitable Trusts Center on the States, along with the National Center for State Courts, looked at the sentencing guidelines among different states. The purpose of the study was to determine how states approach sentencing and to employ a sentencing commission to help develop guidelines that work to achieve desired outcomes regarding punishment and incarceration, while also helping judges retain their autonomy and discretion.

Considerations in Sentencing Under the Guidelines

Factors that should be considered when employing criminal sentencing guidelines include the type of offense committed. A repeat offender who steals a piece of candy, which is generally considered to be misdemeanor theft, should not be treated the same as a person who commits murder. An individual’s criminal past is another component that a judge considers under sentencing guidelines. Finally, the seriousness or gravity of the crime has a weight on the ultimate sentence that a judge chooses to issue.

When judges are given the discretion to incorporate this approach to sentencing, disparities based on race and gender will slowly begin to disappear. This also applies to disparities in sentencing that arise from income and social status differences. Ideally what will matter the most in sentencing won’t be locking people up and throwing away the key but a reasoned approach that considers all factors when determining the appropriate reform measures.


Marvin Ontario writes on criminal law issues such as ID theft, sentencing, criminal procedure, evidence law and other areas as well. Those concerned about ID theft should consider viewing the ID theft services from Protect Your Bubble.

Image credit goes to alicewaldock.

Categorized as Legal