Sentencing Guidelines:

Central Questions Remain Unanswered

GGD-92-93: Published: Aug 14, 1992. Publicly Released: Aug 14, 1992.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO evaluated the impact of federal sentencing guidelines, focusing on: (1) whether the guidelines reduced the variation by type of crime and offenders' criminal histories in sentences imposed and time served; (2) how the sentence guidelines relate to offense and offender characteristics; (3) what perceptions criminal justice system officials have on the effects of the guidelines; and (4) how the guidelines have affected the operations of the federal criminal justice system.

GAO found that: (1) it was unable to determine the full extent of the guidelines' impact due to data limitations; (2) where sufficient data existed, it could determine that disparities in sentences imposed and time served were reduced after the guidelines took effect; (3) the guidelines may not have removed all unwarranted disparities that existed across all categories of offenders; (4) some of the continuing disparity was due to prosecutorial discretion in presentencing decisions and plea bargaining; (5) prosecutors generally believed that the guidelines improved the sentencing system, while most judges, defense attorneys, and probation officers said there were more problems than benefits in comparison to the old system; and (6) criminal justice system personnel believed their workloads and case processing times have increased under the guidelines.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Sentencing Commission is not measuring the overall impact of the guidelines on the criminal justice system because the Federal Judicial Center is doing similar work.

    Matter: Congress should direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as part of its overall evaluation responsibilities, to measure the ongoing impact of the guidelines on the operations of the criminal justice system.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Sentencing Commission working groups addressing issues of substantial assistance and prosecutorial discretion are considering how some pre-sentencing decisions and policies affect sentencing outcomes. Reports are issued periodically.

    Matter: Congress should instruct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to include in its evaluation and analyses the impact of the guidelines on presentencing decisions and policies that affect sentencing outcomes.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Sentencing Commission is continuing to collect data and do analysis on sentencing disparity. Working groups are looking at issues including the effect of substantial assistance awards and plea bargains on disparity in sentencing. Reports are issued periodically. They are published in the Federal Register and available to interested parties on request.

    Matter: Congress should direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to continue its efforts to collect the data and perform the analyses needed to determine whether sentencing disparity is increasing, decreasing or remaining stable under the guidelines and the amount of the disparity that is unwarranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Sentencing Commission agreed with GAO that, given the shortcomings in preguidelines data, no useful purpose would be served by comparing preguidelines and guidelines data in the future. No work of this nature will be done.

    Recommendation: Given that it is not practical to rectify the shortcomings in preguidelines data and develop a more meaningful baseline for comparing sentencing outcomes before and after the guidelines, the U.S. Sentencing Commission's focus should shift from preguidelines and guidelines comparisons to future trends in sentencing under the guidelines.

    Agency Affected: United States Sentencing Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Sentencing Commission is working with the Federal Judicial Center, Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and other agencies to develop and improve measures of trends in sentencing under the guidelines system. The task will be ongoing for the foreseeable future as agencies continue to improve their performance measurement systems. As such, the open recommendation should be closed and work monitored under GAO work reviewing agencies' efforts to comply with the Government Performance Results Act of 1993.

    Recommendation: The U.S. Sentencing Commission should work with other components of the criminal justice system to ensure that the appropriate measures are established and the requisite data are collected and analyzed.

    Agency Affected: United States Sentencing Commission

 

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