Sentencing Guidelines in the American Justice System

Today's policies on crime and punishment in America can largely be attributed to sentencing guidelines - a legal principle that takes away some of the discretion that judges have in sentencing those convicted of crimes. Known as presumptive minimums, mandatory minimums, or in some cases, voluntary guidelines and benchmarks, these structures are formal procedures for judges to use in determining a specific punishment for a criminal offense.

History of Sentencing Guidelines in the United States

Most sentencing policies were borne from the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which created the United States Sentencing Commission. This group was charged with structuring uniform sentences that would apply across all federal district courts. Federal judges would then determine sentences based on a point system matrix that accounted for the specific offense, the offender's criminal history and other mitigating or aggravating circumstances. Prior to this change, sentences varied greatly depending on the federal crime, the defendants involved, as well as the particular federal district in which the crime occurred.

Following this action on the federal level, many states adopted legislation to create sentencing commissions for presumptive guidelines on the state level. Whether they were politically motivated or based on changing policy, states created minimum sentencing guidelines to deter crime and create uniform sentences to avoid disparate sentences. While guidelines have been successful in establishing common punishments, prosecutors and defense attorneys have had continual difficulties defining criminal behavior and how it should be punished, especially given the unique circumstances that each case brings.

Judges frequently have little discretion to make departures from sentencing guidelines. While it provides a uniform platform for sentencing and ostensibly removes bias, the absence of judicial discretion sometimes has tragic results.

Sentencing Disparities for Crack and Powder Cocaine Show Guidelines' Weakness

Even with sentencing guidelines in place, sentences for similar crimes can still be strikingly different. The most striking example is how federal courts dealt with drug possession crimes over the last 15 years. In 1986, Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 to combat the crack cocaine epidemic. A conviction for five grams of crack cocaine, more frequently used by African-American drug users, would yield the same five-year minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, more frequently used by white drug users. Essentially, crack was deemed 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine. This led to African-American men being convicted of much longer sentences than whites who had been convicted of a similar drug crime involving cocaine.

Mandatory minimums are facing increased public scrutiny because many such laws have failed in their intended purposes (such as deterring crime), and because budget shortfalls have changed incarceration options.

Will Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing Change State Guidelines?

States, including Pennsylvania, are facing the harsh reality that they can no longer afford to jail all types of offenders, and are considering other ways to create appropriate punishments. The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has the responsibility for creating a "consistent and rational statewide policy" on sentences for crimes committed within Pennsylvania. The Commission meets in March and may address sentencing policy within Pennsylvania because of the budget shortfall and overcrowding in Pennsylvania prisons.

The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission released a report in January 2011 advocating for the continuation of the Pennsylvania Motivational Boot Camp program - an alternative to incarceration - because it saves Pennsylvania money by diverting convicted offenders from overcrowded state prisons. The Commission also recommended that the boot camp program should expand to include offenders up to age 36 because more offenders would be eligible.