From 1975 through 1980 American sentencing laws and practices experienced more extensive changes than any other 5-year period in American history. Ten states abolished their parole boards, fifteen states enacted determinate sentencing statues and thirty-five instituted mandatory minimum-sentence laws. All of these changes were in response to growing research that displayed disparities in sentencing, both at the federal and state levels. To elevate this issue many states began forming sentencing commissions to examine issues such as race, gender, geographical disparity in sentencing. Committees began to examine tends and compiled data which helped them decipher and design goals and purpose for their state sentencing policies. Typically after analyzing this data, sentencing commissions would recommend a set of sentencing guidelines to the state legislatures.
The purpose of these guidelines are to provide structure at the criminal sentencing stage which provides both judges with offense and offender elements that should be considered in each case. These elements are then typically assigned a point value from either a grid or worksheet scoring system, after these elements are considered the guidelines recommend a sentence or sentence range for the offender. State sentencing guidelines typically differ considerably in terms of judicial discretion, for instance some states may allow judges to use departures, which are essentially specific instances when the judge may deviate from a recommended sentence.
The United States currently has twenty-one states that have active sentencing guideline systems.The first state to create a commission to mandate sentencing guidelines was Minnesota in 1978. Originally, The commission was tasked with constructing and monitoring the use of a determinate sentencing structure, which refers to sentencing that has actual limits that are determined at the time of the sentencing, as opposed to indeterminate sentencing which establishes both a minimum and maximum but the sentence itself is later determined by a
parole commission or a similar administrative body after the person has started serving their sentence. The Minnesota commission listed their primary goal of sentencing as retribution. In 1980 Minnesota became the first state to adopt legally-binding sentencing guidelines, the state also made the sentencing commissions a permanent entity, the commission was tasked with monitoring and making other recommendations related to sentencing. Today Minnesota's sentencing commission is looked at as one of the primer and most successful programs across the country.
The State of Michigan enacted it's first state sentencing guideline system on January 17, 1984. These enacted guidelines were the product of four years of work, provided by an advisory committee which was appointed to the task in 1979. In 1994 Public Act 445 established the Michigan Sentencing Commission, which similarly to the Minnesota commission was tasked with designing and recommending a new set of sentencing guidelines. The commission was made up of 19 members and included four senators and four representatives. The sentencing commission was tasked with overhauling the previously recommended set of sentencing guidelines, and formally introduced these in late 1997. While reevaluating the previous guidelines, the new sentencing commission established a set of new goals that it wanted to accomplish with it's new recommendation, while still aiming to eliminate sentencing disparities the commission set out to treat offenses against the person more severely than other offenses and to establish a level of proportionality between the seriousness of the offense and the offenders previous criminal record.
The recommended guidelines included a categorization of all 700 felony offenses into six crime groups - crimes against the person, crimes against property, crimes involving controlled substances, crimes against public order, crimes against public safety, and crimes against the public trust. Felonies are ranked in nine levels according to their severity, the
highest being second degree murder. These new sentencing guidelines reflected the commissions goals, offenses against the person are treated more severely by their placement into a higher crime class. The guidelines address the issue of proportionality by providing longer minimum sentences to higher crime classes based on the offenders criminal record. The recommended sentencing guidelines were enacted by 1998 Public Act 317 after the recommendation of these sentencing guidelines Michigan's sentencing commission has disbanded and the state has yet to reestablish one.
In 2008 the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) a non-profit organization published a comparative study of three states: Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. These states were chosen because they all vary in terms of the level of judicial discretion. The state of Minnesota is the most mandatory, meaning that they have a much tighter range for recommended sentences for similar pasts in offenders, while Virginia is the least mandatory. The states also vary in terms of their sentencing commissions, while Virginia and Minnesota's commission meets regularly the state of Michigan dissolved it's commission in 1998. This report examines the success of sentencing guidelines, essentially by examining the goals that were set forth by the sentencing commission. More specifically the study looks elements such as predictability, proportionality and discrimination. Sentencing guidelines must be predictable in the sense that when someone looks at the criminal history of two separate offenders that are identical and the current accused crime in conjunction with the established sentencing guidelines, they should receive the same sentence. The report finds that there was "a close overall fit between predictions based on the guidelines elements and reality" (Ostrom) meaning that the recommended sentence for prisoners aligned closely with the actual sentence prisoners were receiving. The report also analyses proportionality by looking at "Percent change in probability of going to prison"(Ostrom) which grows as the level of crime becomes more severe. Put more aptly, when a serious offender commits a crime he has a much greater chance of going to jail than a lower level baseline offender. The data compiled by NCSC indicates that this is true of all three states, this demonstrates that sentencing guidelines are working in their effort to differentiate sentences for lower level offenders. In terms of discrimination, the report indicates that current research has found statistically significant racial effects in all three states "all were substantively small with minimal impact on actual sentence decisions." (Ostrom). NCSC published a separate report in 2008 that profiled every state to examine and compare practices, the report uses a sentencing guideline continuum to compare each state to determine which states have mandatory and voluntary systems. The continuum awards points based on questions questions such as "Does a Sentencing Commission regularly report on guideline compliance?" The point scale ranges from 1-12 the lowest being completely voluntary and the highest being mandatory. Out of the twenty-one states examined the most mandatory states were North Carolina and Minnesota, at the other end of the spectrum Ohio and Wisconsin were found to be the most voluntary. Seventeen out of the twenty-one states profiled had active sentencing commissions, states without active sentencing commissions ranged in the continuum from mandatory to highly voluntary. The take away from both of these studies, is that almost every single state has a slightly different views and stance on sentencing guidelines, however, sentencing disparities become less prevalent in systems that attempt to guide judicial decisions based on previous histories in conjunction with severity of crime. The following is a list of regional states that were included in the profile, complete with their continuum score and a brief examination and history of their sentencing guidelines.
Michigan is a member of the National Sentencing Commission, Currently the State of Michigan does not have an active sentencing commission. Michigan's truth in sentencing statue mandates that offenders serve at least 100% of their minimum sentences. After serving the minimum offenders release dates are determined by a parole board.
Continuum Score 8 Guideline Structure: 9 grids with 6 prior record levels: 5 with 6 offense levels, 1 with 4 offense levels, and 3 with 3 offense levels.
The Minnesota legislature created the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission in 1978. Minnesota's sentencing commission is made up of 11 members and meets on a monthly basis. The commissions highlights public safety, uniformity, proportionality as goals it strives to meet with it's sentencing policies. The state has presumptive guidelines for felonies, with moderate appellate review. Parole has been abolished in the state. There are no guidelines for intermediate sanctions.
Continuum Score: 11
Structure: Felony grid, 11 offense and 7 prior record levels; sex offender grid, 8 offense and 7 prior record levels.
The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission was created in 1990 by the General Assembly. The commission is made up of 31 members, including 10 judges. Guidelines had previously been mandatory, but the state is now moving towards and advisory sentencing system. The commission highlights both public safety and limiting discrimination in sentencing as goals. Parole has been abolished and is currently considering a similar sentencing structure for juvenile offenders.
Continuum Score: 1 Guideline Structure: Single grid, 5 offense levels.
Created in 1978 by the General Assembly, The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is made up of 11 commissions members, which contains 4 judges that are selected by the chief justice of the supreme court. The commission lists sentencing equity and fairness as a primary goal. Sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. Parole has been retained.
Single grid, 14 offense and 8 prior record levels. Continuum Score: 9
The state of Wisconsin employs voluntary guidelines for felonies. The state currently has In the state of Wisconsin there is currently no active sentencing commission, the commission was dissolved during the 2007-2009 budget cycle. Currently no data is actively being analyzed, however sentencing courts are still required to consider guidelines but they are strictly advisory
Separate worksheets for 11 offense categories. Continuum Score: 1
Ostrom, Brian, Charles Ostrom, Roger Hanson, and Matthew Kleiman. "Assessing Consistency and Fairness in Sentencing: A Comparative Study in Three States." National Center for State Courts 2008: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/ PEWExecutiveSummaryv10.pdf>.
Ostrom, Brian, and Neal Kauder. "State Sentencing Guidelines:Profiles and Continuum." National Center for State Courts 2008: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://www.ncsconline.org/ csi/PEW-Profiles-v12-online.pdf>.
Deming, Sheila. "Michigan's Sentencing Guidelines."Michigan Bar. Michigan Bar, n.d. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://www.michbar.org/journal/article.cfm?articleID=92&volumeID=8>.
Dailey, Debra. "Minnesota: Sentencing Guidelines in a Politically Volatile Environment." Federal Sentencing Reporter. 6.3 (1993): 144-146. Print.