U.S. Sentencing Commission
Year in Review
- A comprehensive review of the sentencing guidelines continued to be a top agency priority in 1996. The review's objective is to reduce the complexity of guideline application and to assess how well the guidelines are meeting the congressional objectives outlined in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. During the year, staff developed eight simplification papers examining different aspects of the guidelines: relevant conduct, criminal history, multiple counts, departures and offender characteristics, sentencing options under the guidelines, Chapter Three adjustments, level of detail in Chapter Two, and the Sentencing Reform Act.
- The Commission declared a moratorium on guideline amendments in 1996 (except for those necessary to implement congressional directives) partly in response to requests from judges, attorneys, and probation officers. The amendment hiatus also allowed commissioners to sift through the voluminous material produced by staff; gather insights from judges, attorneys, probation officers, and academics on recommended changes; and begin narrowing the options for guideline simplification and refinement.
- In March 1996, the Sentencing Commission held its annual public hearing on proposed guideline amendments. Subsequently, on April 30, the Commission sent Congress two guideline amendments that would significantly increase penalties for individuals convicted of certain child sex offenses. The amendments responded to congressional directives in the Sex Crimes Against Children Prevention Act of 1995 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The amendments took effect November 1, 1996.
- The House Subcommittee on Crime reviewed the Sentencing Commission's work, conducting an oversight hearing on December 14, 1995. During the proceedings, Subcommittee Chairman Bill McCollum characterized the guidelines as a "complicated, finely-tuned system that has done a superb job of accomplishing the objective of federal sentencing uniformity."
- In June, the Commission submitted to Congress two reports, one addressing the issue of the deterrent effect of the guidelines on computer fraud and the other analyzing cases of sexual abuse, child pornography, and the promotion of prohibited sexual contact.
- The Commission appointed Dr. John H. Kramer Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at The Pennsylvania State University as its Interim Staff Director in July 1996. In the Fall of 1996, the Commission voted to make Dr. Kramer permanent Staff Director. He replaces Ms. Phyllis J. Newton, who served as staff director for more than six years.
- In August, the Commission convened a public hearing in Denver, Colorado, to hear suggestions for simplifying the federal sentencing guidelines. Attention was focussed on three of the priority issues of the simplification project: acquitted conduct, drug offenses and role in the offense, and departures/offender characteristics.
- In early October, the terms of Vice Chairman A. David Mazzone and Commissioner Julie E. Carnes expired. Both Judge Mazzone, a U.S. District Judge in Massachusetts and Judge Carnes, a U.S. District Judge in the Northern District of Georgia, had served on the Commission since July 1990.
- The Commission's training staff continued to provide guideline application assistance to judges, probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others. During 1996, Commission staff trained approximately 3,150 individuals at 63 training sessions, including ongoing programs sponsored by the Federal Judicial Center and the Department of Justice.
- Two Commission-staffed "hotlines" that provide guideline application assistance continued to do booming business, together averaging 154 calls per month. One hotline responds to questions from judges and probation officers, the other to questions from prosecuting and defense attorneys. In January 1997, the two hotlines will merge into one to maximize operational efficiency.
- The Commission's temporary assignment program for assistant U.S. attorneys and assistant federal defenders continued through 1996. Two assistant federal defenders and two assistant U.S. attorneys worked with the Commission in 1996. Because of budget constraints, the Commission suspended operation of the visiting probation officer program in December 1995 as the last two visiting probation officers completed their assignments.
- During 1996, Commission staff received and responded to thousands of information requests from Congress, attorneys, government agencies, researchers, inmates and their families, and the public. In 1996, Commission staff responded to more than 9,000 public information telephone calls and approximately 2,000 written inquiries.
- The Commission issued two editions of its popular, periodic newsletter, Guide Lines.
- The Commission joined the Internet community by inaugurating a home page on the World Wide Web. The Commission's home page allows anyone with a computer, a modem, and an account with an Internet service provider to have 24-hour access to a wealth of information about the agency and federal and state sentencing practices. The home page was rated one of the hottest Internet sites by USA Today.
- In March, the Commission released its proceedings book from its second Symposium on Crime and Punishment in the United States. The symposium, "Corporate Crime in America: Strengthening the ?Good Citizen' Corporation," focused on changes in corporate and business culture since sentencing guidelines for organizations became effective in 1991.
- The number of guideline cases rose to an all-time high of 42,436 in 1996, driven by an increase in drug and immigration cases. Drug cases continued to account for 40 percent of federal sentencings despite their increase in actual numbers.
- For the first time, crack cocaine was the most prevalent illegal substance cited in drug offenses. Crack and powder cocaine together accounted for more than half of all drug trafficking cases.
- The vast majority of federal defendants (80.8%) were sentenced to some term of incarceration, with an average (mean) sentence of 62 months (51 months when counting sentences of probation).
- Seventy percent of all defendants were sentenced within their applicable guideline range. The rate of departures for substantial assistance stabilized at 19 percent, but the rate of other downward departures increased.
- The Commission updated its computer software program that leads users step-by-step through the guideline application process. The new version, ASSYST 2.1, incorporates all 1995 amendments, Chapters Seven and Eight from the Guidelines Manual, and improvements to the user interface. Because of resource considerations, the Commission anticipates that ASSYST 2.1 will be the last version of the program.
- The Commission continued its support of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, provided it with space on the Commission's Internet web site, and participated in its annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin.
- In advancing the Commission's research and information dissemination agenda, staff presented five research papers and works in progress at the American Society of Criminology's 1996 annual meeting in Chicago.
This annual report covers fiscal year 1996 (October 1, 1995, through September 30, 1996). Unless otherwise denoted, "1996" refers to fiscal year 1996.
United States Sentencing Commission