After lengthy study, Sentencing Commission assesses guideline impact

Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984, which in turn created the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). In 1987, work done in that agency resulted in the nation’s first federal sentencing guidelines for felonies and serious (Class A) misdemeanors.

One prominent and quickly observed byproduct of the system, as noted by a diverse group of critics across the country, was its inconsistency in application, with defendants in differing jurisdictions facing similar criminal charges routinely receiving highly disparate sentences. Additionally, the guidelines were deemed problematic by defense attorneys, a number of judges and even some prosecutors for the long and harsh sentences they imposed on even low-level and non-violent offenders, such as those charged with minor drug crimes.

In its 2005 United States v. Booker decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered the sentencing guidelines advisory. After years of close study both prior to and in the wake of that change, the USCC has now submitted a report to Congress that evaluates the guidelines system in light of the Court’s ruling.

The Commission released a synopsis of its findings in a press release yesterday, with Judge Patti B. Saris, USCC Chair, noting that the guidelines continue to be “the essential starting point” for determining sentences. Saris noted that 80 percent of sentences handed down are within or below the guideline range.

In citing “troubling trends,” though, Saris notes “increased regional and demographic differences,” something that critics have always pointed out.

As one example, the study notes large differences in regional outcomes concerning the rates of below-range sentences handed down to defendants. In some areas, judges pronounce such sentences in less than one out of every 10 cases. In others, more than 40 percent of sentences are below the guideline range.

Moreover, a high degree of variation in sentencing outcomes imposed is even seen among judges in the same district.

There will likely be substantial comment forthcoming on the report. We will be sure to keep readers apprised of any material details or updates.

Source: Sentencing Law and Policy, “US Sentencing Commission releases new Booker report,”

Jan. 31, 2013