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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.


Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
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.
Closed – Not Implemented
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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Sentencing Commission 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
United States Sentencing Commission 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.
Closed – Not Implemented
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.

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