The 1987 Sentencing Reforms
Prior to 1987 federal judges around the country sentenced individuals on a case by case basis. This afforded extremely broad discretion to judges who were only constrained with maximum penalties. Under this scheme there was great disparity between sentences for individuals in different locations. To address these differences, in 1984 Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which abolished parole in the federal system and allowed appellate review of judicial sentences. The Act also set up the United States Sentencing Commission to enact a system of standardized sentencing.
On November 1, 1987 the US Sentencing Commission enacted the sentencing guidelines, which set forth uniform sentences for federal crimes. The guidelines fix an individuals sentence based upon the category of the offense charged and the criminal history of the individual.
Post 2005: After United States v. Booker
In 2005 the Supreme Court decided the landmark case United States v. Booker. The Court in Booker announced two major changes to the federal sentencing process: (1) The sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory, and (2) substantial changes to the standard for appealing a federal sentence.
Although federal judges are no long required to sentence a defendant under the sentencing guidelines, they must consult the guidelines and take them into account when sentencing. Judges vary in their adherence to the guidelines but there are now numerous factors to cause a judge to depart downward from the guidelines. Under Booker a defendant may appeal his sentence, but the appellate court may apply a presumption of reasonableness to a sentence within the guidelines.