Routinely criticized: irrational federal sentencing outcomes

The implementation of federal sentencing guidelines, which came to the fore nationally decades ago, was prompted by the perceived need to introduce greater rationality and consistency in outcomes across the country for similar criminal offenses.

Have the guidelines been a bust?

Of course, there have always been those who champion them, but their arguments in favor of limitations imposed on the discretionary powers of courts have become increasingly drowned out in recent years by the clarion calls of reformers who point to too many ludicrous sentencing outcomes.

Notably, those urging change come from a broad coalition of naysayers. Would-be reformers span both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill, which is similarly true in state legislatures across the country.

And judges have chafed under the diminished discretion they have wielded under the guidelines, with many lamenting the injustice and illogical of some of the sentencing orders they have been forced to impose.

A case in point: U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett has gone public with his complaint regarding a sentence he imposed on a female defendant in a drug case years ago. He says that he was compelled by the guidelines to mete out a 24-year prison term to her, a result he recently called "idiotic, arbitrary, unduly harsh and grossly unfair." He is asking President Obama to pardon the woman, who has already languished for 14 years behind bars.

Bennett says his role in the outcome has made him "embarrassed and ashamed."

In truth, of course, draconian criminal sentencing outcomes are a distinct potential every day in cases in Tennessee and nationally.

A criminal suspect or defendant squared off against the daunting power and resources of criminal investigators and prosecutors might reasonably want to secure representation from a proven and aggressive defense attorney without delay. Experienced legal counsel will examine every facet of the state's case and argue forcefully for an outcome that mitigates adverse consequences to the fullest extent possible.

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