Are Sentencing Guidelines Mandatory?

Are Sentencing Guidelines Mandatory?

Not really. As the name “sentencing guidelines” suggests, sentencing guidelines are exactly that: guidelines. Sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. And while a judge can use the sentence that the guidelines suggest, he or she can also go above or beyond the suggested guideline range based on the circumstances of the case.

What are Sentencing Guidelines?

In federal court cases, the sentencing guidelines come from the United States Sentencing Commission. You can read the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2021 Guidelines Manual (the most recent version) by clicking here.

As the introduction to the Guidelines Manual explains, “[t]he United States Sentencing Commission … is an independent agency in the judicial branch composed of seven voting and two non-voting, ex officio members.”

The Sentencing Commission’s “principal purpose is to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal criminal justice system that will assure the ends of justice by promulgating detailed guidelines prescribing the appropriate sentences for offenders convicted of federal crimes.”

Image courtesy of Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash.

Many states have their own sentencing guidelines as well. Some of them are created by independent agencies like the U.S. Sentencing Commission. But others are created by courts, judges or even lawmakers.

In Michigan, for example, the Michigan Judicial Institute prepares the Sentencing Guidelines Manual. You can read the Michigan Judicial Institute’s May 2022 Sentencing Guidelines Manual (the most recent version) by clicking here.

How do Sentencing Guidelines work?

Basically, these sentencing guidelines instruct a judge to use a variety of factors to determine an appropriate range for a sentence for a specific defendant. In Michigan, for instance, the range is determined by calculating offense variables and prior record variables. Then the judge considers that range and either chooses a sentence within it or explains why he or she believes a sentence outside of it is appropriate.

If Sentencing Guidelines aren’t mandatory, what is?

Sentencing Guidelines aren’t mandatory. But, as the name suggests, mandatory minimums are, in fact, mandatory. If a state or federal law requires that a judge impose a specific minimum sentence for a crime, the judge must impose that minimum — even in cases where he or she doesn’t think it’s appropriate.

Image courtesy of  Matt Popovich via Unsplash.

For example, in Michigan, a state with relatively few mandatory minimums, a conviction for “felony firearm” comes with a two-year mandatory minimum. This means that if you’re caught with a firearm while committing a felony, you must serve a two-year sentence regardless of the circumstances surrounding the offense. And, making matters worse, this two-year mandatory sentence must be served after any other prison time for other convictions. So, in reality, it basically adds two years onto every other sentence.

The Takeaway:

In the United States, sentencing guidelines aren’t mandatory. This means that judges may consider them. But they can also choose a sentence outside of the range recommended by the guidelines. However, most states and federal law has mandatory minimums. These mandatory-minimum laws are, as their name suggests, mandatory.

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