Landmark Supreme Court rulings in 2005 and 2007 gave federal judges more freedom to depart from sentencing guidelines. But this relatively new latitude has caused a thorny problem to creep back into the federal system: Defendants can receive wildly different sentences for similar crimes, reports the Wall Street Journal. One expert says there is “preliminary evidence of greater inconsistencies between judges, who have the freedom to draw upon their own political, policy and punishment values when they make sentencing decisions.”
Proponents of greater sentencing discretion say past rules were too inflexible, preventing judges from using their expertise to fit the punishment to the crime. But others warn that the new freedom risks a return to the problem that prompted Congress to call for uniform sentencing guidelines in the late 1980s: that defendants’ fates will be subject largely to the whims of individual judges. Since sentencing parameters were relaxed, early indications suggest that judges on balance are using their discretion to give longer white-collar sentences. But in some cases, judges have handed down much lower sentences than would have been required by law just a few years ago.