Parole: Corpse or Phoenix?

38 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2013  

Paul J. Larkin

The Heritage Foundation

Date Written: July 28, 2013


For most of the twentieth century, the federal government used an indeterminate sentencing system at the front end of the correctional process and a parole system at the back end in order to determine when an offender should be released from prison. In 1984, Congress sought completely to revise the federal sentencing and correctional processes. Congress adopted a mandatory sentencing guidelines system in order to restrain the discretionary sentencing authority that federal courts traditionally had enjoyed. Congress rejected an advisory guidelines system because Congress believed that such a process would not eliminate the sentencing disparities that had plagued the federal criminal justice system for decades. Because the new mandatory guidelines would both regularize the sentencing decision and determine when a prisoner would be released, Congress repealed the federal parole laws as being unnecessary. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the new system over separation of challenges in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989), and parole seemed to have passed into history. Sixteen years later in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), however, the Court held that the same mandatory sentencing guidelines system upheld in Mistretta violated a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment Jury Trial Clause. Booker and later decisions have made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory. The problem is that Congress rejected an advisory guidelines system and would not have repealed the parole laws if the federal sentencing process did not strictly constrain district courts’ sentencing authority. One of the consequences of the Booker decision, accordingly, is that federal sentencing now is susceptible to the same disparities that Congress sought to remedy with mandatory determinate sentencing guidelines in 1984. The article discusses the question whether the Booker decision has breathed new life into the federal parole laws now that the condition precedent for their repeal, adoption of a mandatory sentencing guidelines system, is no longer in effect.

Keywords: Parole, Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Mistretta, Booker

Suggested Citation

Larkin, Paul J., Parole: Corpse or Phoenix? (July 28, 2013). American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 50, p. 303, 2013. Available at SSRN: or

Paul James Larkin (Contact Author)

The Heritage Foundation ( email )

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