State Sentencing Guidelines: Profiles and Continuum

  • July 01, 2008

“Active participation by a Sentencing Commission is an essential element of effective guidelines,” according to a recent research report Assessing Consistency and Fairness in Sentencing (National Center for State Courts, 2008). The report is based on a comparative inquiry into how sentencing guidelines shape who is sentenced to prison and for what length of time. A key finding of the study is that Commissions play a critical role in designing guidelines, assessing whether guidelines are working as intended, and identifying how needed adjustments might best be made.

Information on the role and contributions of Sentencing Commissions is appreciated by Commission members as well as state and local policymakers, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, and state judiciaries. However, even the most active and prominent Commissions are not fully aware of how they compare to their counterparts in other states. Likewise, individuals with an interest in sentencing reform have little comparative information available on alternative guideline systems. As with many state public policy programs, limited literature exists on the rationale and mechanics of individual state programs as well as similarities and differences across states and much of what does exist might best be called “fugitive literature.”

To help remedy this situation, the National Center for State Courts has developed a set of “State Sentencing Commission Profiles” to present what is currently happening in practice. This overview of Commissions and their guidelines builds on an earlier report produced in 1997 by the NCSC in collaboration with the National Association of Sentencing Commissions titled Sentencing Commission Profiles, (National Center for State Courts, 1997). Much has happened in the field of structured sentencing over the past decade, resulting in a need for current and more expansive information.