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Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing Essay

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Updated: May 12th, 2021


The US court system carrying out sentences for serious criminal misdemeanor utilizes a set of Federal Sentencing Guidelines developed by the United States Sentencing Commission. These rules are obligatory for judges sentencing criminals and provide common federal procedure directions necessary to unify the measures within the US courts. Controlled substance trafficking is one of the issues addressed in the guidelines.

According to the suggested scenario, the offender, Ben Smith, pled guilty to the distribution of 5 kilograms of cocaine. It is vital to study the guidelines to find necessary information about the sentence for the offender, as well as the supporting criteria facilitating sentence imposition. The defenders should thoroughly utilize the background information about the offender and the core ideas of the federal guidelines to provide optimal data for a judge imposing a sentence.

Main body

The offender, Ben Smith, is being sentenced for a controlled substance possession and distribution. According to the case, he pled guilty to trafficking 5 kilograms of cocaine. Such an amount of drug is classified as a level 30 offense and requires a sentence from 97 to 121 months of imprisonment for a felon with no criminal history points (United States Sentencing Commission, 2018). Thus, the federal sentencing guidelines provide clear directions for a judge to carry out a decision concerning the sentence for a particular offender.

As for the development of the federal sentencing guidelines, they were created by an independent agency in the judiciary branch – the United States Sentencing Commission. This body has developed a system of “sentencing policies and practices … that will assure the ends of justice” and guarantee equal rules on the territory of the country (United States Sentencing Commission, 2018, para. 4).

The reason why these guidelines were established is the need for the court system of the USA to have a uniform program capable of addressing all serious crimes. The purpose of the guidelines is to eliminate any subjectivity or biases in criminal punishment for severe felonies or misdemeanors in every court of the country. The judges who follow common rules have little opportunity to apply personal judgment in sentencing, which keeps the judicial system within the core principles of justice.

Concerning the reasons and purposes of the guidelines development, they seem to provide little discretion opportunities for judges who impose a sentence on a criminal. Given the multiple criteria and factors influencing the ultimate punishment decision, there are some ways for a judge to apply background information to facilitate a sentence. However, according to Gertner (2016), many judges consider Guidelines as an advisory tool and exercise “discretion around the margins of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines” (p. 165). Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is important to maintain a uniform system of rules to keep such a complicated system as courts under control.

The issue of judicial discretion has been acutely discussed over the past decades. Federal sentencing that complies with the federal guidelines was given more discretion opportunities upon “the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220” (Gertner, 2016, p. 165). This case addressed Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory rules and claimed more freedom for federal judges in their court decisions. Nevertheless, the discretion that exists in the courts now needs to be reduced to limit biases and establish a more unified approach to criminal punishment. Strict rules with all the possible influential factors described in the guidelines have to be respected and used as a basis for carrying out justice for all.

Concerning the proposed scenario, the Assistant Federal Defender should retrieve background information capable of influencing and aiding the ultimate sentence decision and present it to the judge. The first most important point in this regard would be the criminal history category which greatly influences the time duration of a sentence. If Mr. Smith has a zero point criminal history, this fact will reduce his sentence. Secondly, the offender pled guilty that aids in the sentence imposition and should be taken into account by a judge. The third main issue that a defender should present to the judge concerns the harm caused by Ben Smith upon his unlawful action of distributing a controlled substance. If the severe harm to third parties is not proven, this information is potent to aid in sentencing.


To summarize, the judicial branch is directed by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines established by an independent body represented by the United States Sentencing Commission. The guidelines provide a uniform system of practices and procedures for all federal judges in their decisions upon criminal behaviors. The current judicial system addressed the guidelines as an advisory tool and exercises discretion in sentencing. However, it is important to keep the rules strict to eliminate biases and subjectivity in courts and ensure justice and objective sentencing in the US judiciary. When carrying out a decision for a felon, the law specialists need to address all the issues listed in the guidelines to provide the most rational and lawfully validated sentence under the circumstances.


Gertner, N. (2016). Judicial discretion in federal sentencing – Real or imagined? Federal Sentencing Reporter, 28(3), 165-166.

United States Sentencing Commission. (2018) . Web.

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IvyPanda. "Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing." May 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/judicial-discretion-in-federal-sentencing/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing." May 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/judicial-discretion-in-federal-sentencing/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing'. 12 May.

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