U.S. Sentencing Commission

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The U.S. Sentencing Commission is the agency responsible for the establishment of sentencing policies and procedures for the federal court system. The first task of the commission was to develop a uniform set of sentencing guidelines for the federal courts. The commission also collects and analyzes information on topics concerning federal crime and sentencing. In addition, the commission gives advice and assistance to Congress and to the EXECUTIVE BRANCH regarding the development of policies related to crime and criminal acts. The commission was created in 1984 in response to shifting views of penology in the United States.

The history of sentencing in the United States has been marked by evolution and fluctuation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the criminal justice profession embraced the rehabilitation model of punishment. This theory held that criminals were subject to rehabilitation and that taking into account the offender's life experience and looking at any extenuating circumstances could best effect such rehabilitation. Using this model many states established a system of "indeterminate sentencing." Under this system, both state and federal judges had the discretion to impose a sentence that took into account the defendant's character and background as well as the type of crime that had been committed. As a result, judges could sentence offenders to a wide range of penalties ranging from PROBATION to a maximum sentence. When a judge sentenced an offender to prison, PAROLE boards were charged with determining whether an offender should serve the entire sentence imposed by a judge or be subject to early release for good behavior while incarcerated.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the theories surrounding effective punishment changed again. Facing criticism that indeterminate sentencing was giving judges and parole boards too much discretion and not reducing crime, a number of state legislatures passed laws that called for mandatory minimums for certain crimes. Proponents of the deterrence model contended that people would be deterred from committing crimes if the consequences are sufficiently severe and called for the enactment of sentencing guidelines. By 1980 the guideline concept gained a number of adherents among elected officials and the general public. State legislatures began to pass reform acts that incorporated determinate sentencing guidelines to insure that offenders who...

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