Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good

52 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2015

See all articles by Michael Tonry

Michael Tonry

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law

Date Written: March 15, 2015


The federal sentencing system was conceived in one era and delivered in another. When the first bills that culminated in passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were introduced, they aimed at reducing the worst excesses of indeterminate sentencing and achieving greater fairness, consistency, equality, accountability, and transparency in sentencing federal offenders. The overriding goal was reduction of unwarranted racial and other disparities. In the different political climate of the mid-1980s the federal sentencing commission instead sought to achieve greater rigidity and severity and to respond to the law-and-order policy preferences of the Reagan administration and the Republican-controlled US Senate. Probation, formerly the sentence of half of convicted federal offenders, was nearly eliminated as a stand-alone punishment. Lengths of prison sentences increased enormously. After the federal guidelines took effect, buttressed by a plethora of mandatory minimum sentence laws, the growth of the federal prison population far outpaced that of the states and the federal system became the extreme example nationally and internationally of the dangers of politicization of crime policy. The political climate may be changing and the federal system may change with it. Only time will tell.

Keywords: sentencing reform, US Sentencing Commission, federal sentencing guidelines, sentencing commission, sentencing guidelines

Suggested Citation

Tonry, Michael, Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good (March 15, 2015). 44 Crime & Justice, 2015, Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-09, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2586104

Michael Tonry (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law ( email )

229-19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

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