For nearly a century Congress let federal trial judges make the sentence fit the crime. Statutes prescribed general penalties but usually gave the sentencing judge wide discretion in fashioning a suitable punishment. A judge who doubted, for example, that a long stint in prison would rehabilitate a young convict was free to impose a light sentence. A lengthy sentence could also be reduced by the U.S. Parole Board.
But in 1984 a law-and-order-minded Congress did an about-face. In the Sentencing Reform Act the lawmakers abandoned the notion that a prison term might rehabilitate anyone, declared that the prisons were designed only to punish, stripped judges of their sentencing discretion and abolished parole. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, made up of professors and federal judges, was established to develop fixed prison sentences, without the possibility of parole, for every federal crime.
Immediately and immensely unpopular with judges, the commission's strict sentencing guidelines also were challenged by federal defendants. More than 150 federal judges, including the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the members of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, sitting en banc , ruled that the guidelines were unconstitutional. But now those rulings have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.