There are some very good reasons why judges have discretion in sentencing, although the trend has been away from allowing this in recent years. In some cases, the person who is convicted or pleads guilty has a number of priors. Perhaps they were convicted of drug possession, but the jury deadlocked on a rape charge, in which case the judge may believe the person a danger to society and therefore pursues the maximum sentence allowed under the statutes.
I also agree that sometimes a sentence is merely meant to mollify public anger or to burnish a judge's credentials for later promotion or appointment.
I agree with your point, Mrsmonica. I think I was unclear. The Vick case did follow sentencing precedents. However, there was a public sentiment of outrage and, while not as present in the Vick case, there are times when judges are responsive to this and mete out sentences in accordance to this reactive element. The fact that Vick has been released indicates that his sentence was not administered to the harsh extent that the public demanded at the time. Sorry for the confusion.
akannan is correct that legislation mandating stiff minimum sentencing guidelines for specific crimes are reactionary in nature. The crack cocaine sentencing standards were imposed by a Congress fearful of a national epidemic due to what was at the time a new and terrifyingly addictive drug. I don’t know that I agree that the Vick sentence was out of line. Dogfighting and other forms of animal cruelty are almost universally regarded as heinous behaviors by the majority of American society.
This question is going to be moved into a realm of discussion fairly soon. I think that you identify a very powerful element that some components of our sentencing system might need additional revision. Certainly, this issue was brought out in the issue of crack cocaine sentences as opposed to the powdered version. The argument at the time was that crack cocaine was "worse" than the original form of the drug. It cannot be overlooked that one version of the drug was largely present in urban centers, frequently populated with people of color. This approach of "getting tougher on crime" seemed to resonate more in these areas with a particular group of people. Such sentencing guidelines played a formative role in the massive swelling of prisons and jails with people of color. The same element was seen in the Vick trial. The argument here was that the crimes with which Vick was charged were so morally heinous and outrageous that a prison sentence that would "make a statement" was mandated. In both instances, we see the courts administering sentences based on public outrage and a social demand for "justice," which is seen as increased prison sentences. Perhaps, this is one reason why sentencing guidelines in some areas are disproportionate. I think you can find much evidence to suggest this. The question at this point becomes if public pressure does result in more stringent penalties being assessed, then how can we ensure that this is something which is uniform and consistent, as opposed to a reactive stance which might not be as judiciously applied.