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U. S. Judicial System: Impact of Sentencing Guidelines


The United States of America has been keen on improving its judicial system by making better policies and guidelines. Criminal cases are handled through a set of procedures which are governed by a series of guidelines. The sentencing phase is very critical during the trial of an offender. The jury normally refers to some rules before it makes a ruling “In order to come up with a proper sentence, judges follow a grid, which identifies a sentence to be charged on a person who has committed a given crime” (Champion, 1989). These laws were put into practice in 1984 by the congress. Apart from the sentencing guidelines, “there are three sentencing systems: those featuring determinate-sentencing statutes; those using indeterminate-statutes; and those applying sentencing guidelines” (Champion, 1989).

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Sentencing Guidelines

“Sentencing guidelines are categorized into: voluntary and presumptive” (Champion, 1989). Voluntary guidelines were mainly used before the enactment of presumptive guidelines. Voluntary guidelines aim at reducing sentencing lapses by ensuring that future sentencing decisions conform to the past practices. Voluntary guidelines are enacted by a group of judges who are supervised by the administrative officials of the courts. These guidelines lack enforcement mechanisms. However, judges are usually encouraged to use them in the process of sentencing an offender.

Presumptive sentencing guidelines are enacted by commissions set by federal courts and they are only exercised after the legislature’s consent. “Unlike voluntary guidelines, presumptive guidelines do not claim to describe past sentencing practices; rather, they prescribe policies that the officials ought to follow in future” (United States sentencing commission, 2009). The presumptive guidelines are generally better than the voluntary sentencing guidelines.

Impact of Sentencing Guidelines

Altering Sentencing Patterns

Sentencing guidelines aim at changing preexisting sentencing patterns. In this case the judges may modify the guidelines with an aim of making the penalties more serious. Hence, the seriousness of the penalties charged for all categories of cases may increase very first. The amendment of the guidelines also improves the dispensation of justice in the sense that, only the relevant guidelines are put into practice, while the outdated ones are repealed.

Impact on correction facilities

The increasing number of convicts in correction facilities has been partly contributed by the sentencing guidelines. Imprisonment has been given priority in criminal justice. Through the application of these guidelines many people found guilty of minor offences have ended up being incarcerated. This has led to a high population of prisoners in the correction facilities. Such individuals could be given alternative punishments in stead of being given prison sentences.

The high population in the prisons reduces their effectiveness in correcting the offenders. The high population of incarcerated individuals in the correction centers has received a lot of criticism from many people. “This is because U.S citizens pay a lot of taxes that are used for maintaining the congested prisons” (Champion, 1989). The problem of congestion can possibly be solved by giving alternative punishments to minor offenders. “The judicial officers should also ensure that sanctions are applied more uniformly and equitably” (Champion, 1989).

Impact on Court Work Load

Since the implementation of the sentencing guidelines, there has been a modest increase in the number of court cases. “This is because the guidelines provide steps that must be followed by the judges before they determine the penalties” (Champion, 1989). The effects of these guidelines on court cases have not been constant in all the States. In Minnesota very few changes have been witnessed in the handling of cases. Even though the number of some cases in Minnesota has increased slightly, they have been effectively handled through the reduction of other cases. “The increase in the amount of time taken between filling and disposition of cases has led to delays in clearing of cases in the federal courts” (Champion, 1989).

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Effect on plea negotiations

“When the sentencing guidelines were enforced, some critics anticipated a reduction in the rate of plea bargaining, because they believed prosecutors would have less flexibility to offer inducements in return for guilty pleas” (White, 2000). Studies have however shown that the amount of guilty pleas that came from plea bargains is still constant. “The guidelines that are used to determine prison and non prison sentences have different effects: offenders for whom prison has been recommended are less likely to plead guilty, while those for whom non prison sentences have been recommended are more likely to plead guilty” (Champion, 1989).

Many offenders have also been bargaining for the reduction of penalties charged against them. This has enabled offenders to face moderate charges. For example those charged with capital offences can be given less serious punishments if they negotiate for reduction of charges.

Effect on sentencing uniformity and proportionality

Before the guidelines were enforced, there used to be so many disparities in handling of court cases. These disparities have been bridged through the following methods. The main aim of presumptive guidelines is to promote fair sentencing for all criminal cases. In this case it ensures that penalties are charged according to the crime committed. For example, those people who engage in serious offences are given serious punishments, while those who commit minor offences are given moderate punishments. Individuals that repeatedly engage in crime also get tough penalties than those who engage in crime for the first time. “The sentencing guidelines, in conjunction with Federal mandatory minimum sentences, have resulted in longer prison sentences for offenders who violate Federal drug laws” (Champion, 1989).

Uniformity of the sentencing process is further enhanced by giving similar punishments to offenders who engage in a similar offence. Variations in the penalties only occur in special circumstances if valid reasons are given.

Effect on Neutrality

The federal courts have been affected by discrimination in the dispensation of justice for a very long time. This discrimination was based on gender and race. For example, Afro Americans were subjected to long imprisonment before these guidelines were enforced by the federal courts. Nonetheless, there have been positive changes since the introduction of the guidelines. “According to Washington sentencing commission, racial, ethnic, and gender differences in sentencing have declined, but substantial differences by race, ethnicity, and gender have persisted in the use of non confinement” (Champion, 1989).

Conformance to Guidelines by Judges

The judges have been compelled to subscribe to the sentencing guidelines when giving penalties. “Federal judges have been criticizing the guidelines, mainly because they limit their discretion in sentencing, especially in drug matters” (Champion, 1989).

Even the judges who oppose the sentencing guidelines always obey them. “Rates of conformity appear to be higher in systems that establish narrow grounds for departing from the guidelines and in States where case law strongly reinforces guideline policies” (United States sentencing commission, 2009). Conformity to the guidelines has improved the effectiveness of criminal justice. Sentencing commissions normally use reliable data in making the sentencing guidelines. “This data also help the commissions to predict the possible impact of the proposed sentencing guidelines on the criminal justice system” (Champion, 1989).

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The introduction of the sentencing guidelines has led to a substantial improvement of criminal justice system. The uniformity in the sentencing of criminals has also improved to some extent. “This is because the judges consider the defendant’s criminal history, the severity of the crime, and other aggravating or mitigating factors before they give penalties to the offenders” (White, 2000). There are mixed feelings about the sentencing guidelines.

For example, some people think that they are too rigid and harsh, while others think that they are very flexible and not strict enough to give effective penalties. “And still others champion them as a necessary deterrent to crime because of the certainty of the sentence to be served” (Champion, 1989). The government should therefore try to correct the sentencing guidelines that are disputed by the judges, in order to make them more effective. In addition to this, the correction facilities should also be expanded in order to accommodate more prisoners.


Champion, D. (1989). The U.S. sentencing guidelines: implications for criminal justice. New York: Praeger Publishers.

United States sentencing commission. (2009). Federal civil procedure and rules. Malden: Thomson West.

United States sentencing commission. (2009). Federal sentencing manual, 2009: United States sentencing commission including amendments to sentencing guidelines. New York: West Group.

White, J. (2000). Uniform commercial code. Malden: West Publishing Company.

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