Criminal Sentencing Over Time
Sentencing convicted criminal defendants is among the most weighty acts that judges perform. As crime rates rose from the 1960s through the 1980s, Congress created the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences, and other methods that standardized the work of federal judges while giving them—and federal prosecutors—more tools for sentencing more defendants for more types of crimes. This exhibit highlights what sentencing looks like for the judges and prosecutors who participate in the process.
Judge Joe Hood became a federal judge on the Eastern District Court of Kentucky in 1990, three years after the US Sentencing Guidelines went into effect. After studying the issue for nearly ten years, Congress had decided that punishments for similar crimes varied too widely across the Federal Judiciary. They directed the US Sentencing Commission to develop the Guidelines to standardize sentences handed down by trial judges across the federal courts. Many judges chafed at the Guidelines, which limited their ability to carry out their roles. But for Judge Hood, the Sentencing Guidelines reduced disparities endured by convicted persons.
The 1990s saw major new crime control laws that continue to affect the federal justice system for decades later. In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act became one of the era’s most significant pieces of legislation. The law established the “three strikes” rule for violent offenders and expanded the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty. It also increased funding for addiction treatment and for diversion of drug offenders. Once Congress passed the law, the Federal Judiciary evaluated what it would mean for them. In this 1994 memo, the Chief Probation Officer of the Western District Court of Kentucky describes ways to implement key provisions of the crime bill in the District.
Between the sentencing guidelines and major crime control laws, the 1990s saw some of the power over the criminal docket move from the judge to the prosecutor trying the case. In this oral history, Steven Reed, a former US Attorney and assistant US Attorney from 1993 to 2001, describes how he saw his role in the sentencing phase of a criminal trial.
Beginning in 2005, the Sentencing Guidelines became advisory, giving trial judges more discretion in devising sentences. Federal judges would consult the Guidelines, along with a range of factors about the defendant’s background and history, to choose a sentence that they feel best fits the situation at hand. Proponents of the Guidelines say the increased judicial discretion takes the federal courts back to the days of stark disparities in punishments. In this oral history, Judge Tom Russell of the Western District Court of Kentucky, explains why he views the current process as a “net gain” for justice.
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