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August 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


The Beginning of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Twenty-five years ago, on October 12, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act as part of a continuing appropriations bill. A portion of that bill, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, simultaneously created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and instructed the Commission to create sentencing guidelines for the federal courts.

Many attempts had been made to pass legislation reforming federal sentencing in the decade prior to the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act. It wasn’t until 1984 that Congress passed the amended Comprehensive Crime Control Act.

“Of the improvements under consideration… perhaps the most important are those related to sentencing criminal offenders,” the Senate Report on the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 stated. “These provisions introduce a totally new and comprehensive sentencing system that is based upon a coherent philosophy. They rely upon detailed guidelines for sentencing similarly situated offenders in order to provide for a greater certainty and uniformity in sentencing.

“The bill as reported, meets the critical challenge of sentencing reform. The bill’s sweeping provisions are designed to structure judicial sentencing discretion, eliminate indeterminate sentencing, phase out parole release, and make criminal sentencing fairer and more certain.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission held its first meeting on October 29, 1985. Its seven voting members, at least three of whom must be federal judges, serve six-year terms. Among its statutory responsibilities, the Commission establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts; advises and assists Congress and the Executive Branch in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and collects, analyzes, and distributes a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues. It also evaluates the effects of the sentencing guidelines on the criminal justice system, and recommends to Congress appropriate amendments to existing law and sentencing procedures. More on the history of the U.S. Sentencing Commission is available at www.ussc.gov.