Despite a record increase in the federal prison population and continuing evidence of sentencing disparities, the first major assessment of the U.S. government's controversial new guidelines for criminal sentencing concludes that the system is working adequately.
"There is every reason for Congress to reaffirm the sentencing reforms it set in motion and no compelling justification for any significant alteration of those policies," declares the four-year review by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Implemented in November 1987, the new sentencing structure takes authority for meting out punishment from individual federal judges and uses instead a complex set of mandatory sentencing guidelines that statistically weigh a defendant's prior criminal history, the nature of the crime and the extent of the defendant's criminal involvement.
Proponents of the guidelines have long contended that the system will reduce disparities in sentencing among individual judges or federal districts. They further contend that racial disparities in sentencing will be reduced.
Critics have argued that the guidelines have instead given undue weight to U.S. prosecutors -- who can effectively predetermine a sentence by deciding what charges to file against a defendant and what charges to plead away.
In any event, one effect of the new system is that federal prisons are now filling up at a faster rate than ever before. In two years, the number of federal prisoners swelled by more than 50 percent, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is planning for a population of more than 100,000 by 1995.
The report, released last month by the sentencing commission, acknowledges that more people are being sentenced to longer prison sentences under the new system -- particularly in drug cases, which now make up almost half of all federal sentences. Overall, mean sentences for federal drug offenses increased by 248 percent between 1984 and 1988.
But the commission argues that it is unclear whether that increase is the result of the new guidelines or is instead a product of other anti-crime measures, notably a series of mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress for drug offenses.
Although sentences as a whole have increased in severity, the report contends that disparities in punishment between individual defendants are now less. The disparities that remain, it says, are the result of prosecutors and judges who are inclined to circumvent the mandatory guidelines.
Surveys conducted by the sentencing commission show approval of the guidelines by federal prosecutors.
Judges were divided in their view,with many members of the federal bench complaining that necessary judicial discretion has been lost.
Federal public defenders polled by the commission were highly critical of the new system.
Not surprisingly, the 400-page assessment generally protects the turf of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, reserving its criticism for prosecutors and judges who have shown "considerable resistance" to the guidelines. Congress is also criticized for creating the guideline system but simultaneously circumventing that system by passing other laws requiring mandatory sentences for a variety of crimes.
As for the dramatic rate of increase of the prison population, the report offers no suggestion that the guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences should be in any way changed to slow the trend.
As a result, the federal prisons bureau is planning to build 36 more facilities in the next four years.