Sentencing Guidelines

Sentencing guidelines provide a system for handing down uniform or consistent sentences for similar crimes in various jurisdictions. Created by the United States Sentencing Commission to be incorporated in each state’s criminal code, sentencing guidelines help eliminate confusion among judges in determining the proper punishment for a person convicted of a crime. Sentencing guidelines take into consideration the nature of the crime, and judges may consider the convicted offender’s prior criminal history in final sentencing. To explore this concept, consider the following sentencing guidelines definition.

Definition of Sentencing


  1. The punishment given to a person convicted of a crime by a court of law.


1175-1225   Middle English

History of Federal Sentencing Guidelines

When a person has been convicted of a crime, it is up to the trial judge to hand down a sentence, which may consist of a fine, restitution, and/or imprisonment. Prior to 1987, judges handed down sentences at their own discretion, which resulted in judges around the country imposing very different sentences for similar crimes. In an attempt to impose consistency in sentencing, Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, requiring judges to hand down sentences for each individual case that fall within the specific guidelines.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines accomplished the goal of imposing consistency in sentencing, but many legal professionals felt they were too rigid. In 2005, the guidelines were challenged, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional. Now judges are allowed some flexibility in considering not only the nature and seriousness of the crime, but the defendant’s prior criminal history when determining a sentence. As a result, judges occasionally assign sentences that are either harsher or more lenient than the recommended punishment, though most sentences still fall within the recommended range.

State Sentencing Guidelines

Individual state legislatures establish sentencing commissions to review state sentencing guidelines. Such reviews begin with sentencing standards imposed by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and include reviewing current laws, policies, and procedures. The sentencing commission is tasked with making recommendations to the state legislature and state supreme court regarding changes that should be made to the criminal code, criminal procedures, state sentencing guidelines, and other practices specific to that state.

While it is important to ensure public safety by providing immediate and clear response to crime, sentencing commissions must also help ensure that fair sentences are handed down. The goals of criminal sentencing that must be considered by sentencing commissions include:

  • Protecting the public
  • Promoting respect for the law
  • Imparting adequate punishment for the crime committed
  • Discouraging future criminal conduct
  • Imposing sanctions consistent with the need to protect the public, and the seriousness of the crime

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Guidelines

Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines require judges to hand down sentences for a fixed minimum length of imprisonment to people convicted of certain crimes. This means that, for certain crimes, criminal sentencing guidelines give the judge no discretion to issue a less severe punishment no matter what mitigating factors might exist. Mandatory minimum sentences apply to many violent and drug-related crimes, as well as for habitual offenders.

Consecutive and Concurrent Sentences

In circumstances where an individual is convicted of more than one offense in the same case, the judge often has the option to decide whether the defendant should serve his sentences for each offense at the same time, or consecutively. Concurrent sentences run concurrently, the defendant serving all of his sentences at the same time. Consecutive sentences run one after another, the defendant being required to finish each sentence before the next begins. For a person convicted of several crimes, the difference between concurrent and consecutive sentencing can be a very long time.

In deciding whether to order concurrent or consecutive sentencing, criminal sentencing guidelines allow judges to consider the severity of the crimes, the defendant’s past criminal history, and the potential danger to the public should the defendant be released soon.

For example, John is convicted of 10 separate counts of selling prescription medications to others. Each individual count has a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison. If the judge gives John the maximum sentence for each count and orders them to run consecutively, John’s total sentence would be 50 years. If the judge orders the sentences to run concurrently, the total sentence would only be 5 years.

If John had a long history of criminal activity, a sentence of 50 years may seem reasonable to keep him off the streets. On the other hand, if John has no criminal history, and sold the medications during a brief period of time after losing his job and falling on financial hardship, a 50 year sentence may be seen as cruel and unusual punishment.

Sentencing Guidelines Chart

The United States Sentencing Commission (“USSC”) maintains a sentencing guidelines chart for use by judges in handing down sentences for criminal convictions. The sentencing guidelines chart, referred to as a “sentencing table,” is made available in the USSC Guidelines Manual, which is available to all on the website.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal History – A record of crimes for which a person has been previously accused or convicted.
  • Mitigating Factor – Any fact or circumstance that lessens the severity of a criminal act, or which decreases the accused person’s fault or responsibility.