The Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Misplaced Trust in Mechanical Justice

In 1984 the Sentencing Reform Act was passed, ending fully discretionary sentencing by judges and allowing for the creation of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“FSG” or “Guidelines”). This Note proposes that the Guidelines failed not only because they ran afoul of the Sixth Amendment, as determined by the Supreme Court in 2005, but also because they lacked a clear underlying purpose, had a misplaced trust in uniformity, and were born of political compromise. Moreover, the effect of the FSG was to blindly shunt discretionary decisions from judges, who are supposed to be neutral parties, to prosecutors, who are necessarily partisan. This Note argues that such a shift ignores not only the underpinnings of our adversarial system, but also the prosecutor’s role in the executive branch. This Note further argues that a return to indeterminate sentencing coupled with guidelines for parole boards would solve this problem, realigning the power between the branches and creating transparency in the federal sentencing system.