Compare federal sentencing before and after the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here is an excerpt from the “Sentencing Reform Act” of 1984.

There is established as an independent commission in the judicial branch of the United States a United States Sentencing Commission which shall consist of seven voting members and one nonvoting member.... The purposes of the United States Sentencing Commission are to (1) establish sentencing policies and practices for the Federal criminal justice system that (A) assure the meeting of the purposes of sentencing ... (B) provide certainty and fairness in meeting the purposes of sentencing, avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records that have been found guilty of similar criminal conduct ... and (C) reflect, to the extent practicable, advancement in knowledge of human behavior as it relates to the criminal justice process....

A fundamental change in criminal sentencing policies and practices occurred with the passage of “The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984." (P.L. No. 98-473, 98 Stat. 1987). This act is a part of the much broader “Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.” The Sentencing Reform act “abolished parole in the federal system” and established the United States Sentencing Commission. This Commission was tasked with creating guidelines that dictate criminal sentencing in the federal courts.

Before the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act, broad discretion was granted to federal judges in sentencing. The existing statutes were broad in terms of maximum imprisonment, and these judges could impose any sentence they liked, from the minimum of probation to the maximum the law allowed. Additionally, appeals of any consequence were rarely available to the convicted. How the law was interpreted was in the hands of each judge’s interpretation of what was just for the crime for which the offender was convicted. Unsurprisingly, the imposition of sentences was vastly different from one judge to another. When a prisoner could be paroled was to be made by parole officers, a system established in 1910; most prisoners were ineligible for parole until at least a third of their sentence had been served.

There is a clear reason as to why judges had so much variability in sentencing prior to the Sentencing Reform act. That reason was known as “Offender Rehabilitation.” Prisons developed rehabilitation programs that were intended to stem crime by helping offenders become used to what society would expect from them upon release. Because there is no “set” amount of time it would take to rehabilitate someone who, had, for instance, committed armed robbery, judges and parole officers were allowed to decide cases on an individual basis. This way, judges could give specific sentences designed for specific offenders.

However, in the 1970s, research on the effectiveness of these prison-based rehabilitation programs were coming under serious scrutiny. Crime rates did not appear to be going down in any significant way, some criminologists argued, while other criminologists questioned the entire system of individual sentencing. Andrew von Hirsch, a legal philosopher and founder of the Centre for Penal Theory and Penal Ethics, proposed that a sentencing system should be established that punished exclusively on the seriousness of the crime committed. This theory was called “just desserts”; in other words, you get what you deserve. Hirsh, and those who sided with him, argued that the rehabilitation system was illegitimate, because it frequently detained offenders well in excess when compared to the seriousness of their crime.

Source: Major Acts of Congress, ©2004 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two major points of difference that occurred after the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984:

  • Before the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, sentencing of those charged with federal crimes were sentenced by federal judges. Because there occurred much disparity in this sentencing because of the different perspectives of various judges within states, and judges from different states as well, the federal government decided it was necessary to establish standards for the sentencing of those who committed federal crimes. Therefore, standard sentencing was established.

Congress decided that (1) the previously unfettered sentencing discretion accorded federal trial judges needed to be structured; (2) the administration of punishment needed to be more certain; and (3) specific offenders (e.g., white collar and violent, repeat offenders) needed to be targeted for more serious penalties.

  • In addition to the standards set for sentencing of federal criminals, there was also an abolition of parole. After this law was passed, no federal prisoner can obtain a parole. Now, federal prison inmates can only accumulate time-off for good behavior, earning so many days per year. Whereas before the act a prisoner serving 24 years could possibly be paroled after serving approximately one-third of his sentence (8 years), and then be on probation for a specified amount of time. Also, inmates could have a staff member vouch for them if they had exhibited good behavior, thus aiding the chances of parole. Now, however, there are absolutely no paroles; only a presidential pardon can release inmates from their sentences.