New Study Finds State Guidelines Boost Consistency, Reduce Discrimination in Sentencing

  • May 22, 2008

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States that employ sentencing guidelines, a reform effort that encourages judges to take specific legally relevant elements into account during the sentencing process, are found to have more predictability, reduced discrimination, and increased transparency in sentencing, according to a study released today by the National Center for State Courts.

In this first-ever comprehensive, comparative evaluation of states that use sentencing guidelines, the National Center studied three states with substantially different guideline systems:

  • Minnesota, which has the most mandatory system of the three;
  • Michigan, whose guidelines offer more judicial discretion, and
  • Virginia, where judicial compliance with the recommended sentences is voluntary.

The study, “Assessing Consistency and Fairness in Sentencing: A Comparative Study in Three States,” was released at a National Governors Association executive policy retreat on sentencing and corrections issues in Jacksonville, Florida. The report was funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice and the summary document released today was sponsored by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trust's Center on the States.

Key findings include:

  • Guidelines make sentences more predictable in determining who goes to prison and for how long
  • Guidelines effectively limit undesirable sentencing disparity by reducing the role of factors, such as race and economic status, which should not play a role in sentencing decisions.
  • Guidelines make sentencing patterns more transparent by clarifying the factors to be considered during sentencing and how the factors are to be scored in terms of their gravity.
  • State officials have options when designing guidelines that allow policy makers to incorporate multiple design considerations about how best to shape judicial discretion.
  • Active participation by a Sentencing Commission is an essential element of effective guidelines.

Today, at least 20 states and the District of Columbia practice some form of sentencing guidelines.  Because both the elements and the methods of how they are applied in each case can differ, guideline systems vary considerably from state to state. This study grew out of interest in examining important similarities and differences in sentencing patterns among states with different guideline structures and organization.

Launched in 2006 as a project of Pew's Center on the States, the Public Safety Performance Project seeks to help states advance fiscally sound, data-driven policies and practices in sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs.

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit court reform organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. The NCSC, founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation's state courts.