Simplification Draft Paper

Simplification Draft Paper

Working Group on Guideline Simplification:

Purpose Statement


The Sentencing Commission, at its May meeting, identified comprehensive review of the federal guidelines system as a top agency priority. The Commission is well positioned to undertake this task, given the vast amounts of information available from the more than 225,000 cases sentenced under the guidelines during the past eight years, numerous appellate opinions issued on various guidelines issues, the growing body of academic literature and public comment, and the extensive empirical analysis of the guidelines conducted to date.

This purpose statement outlines the working group's proposed scope of inquiry and methodology.


The objective of the working group's comprehensive review of the guidelines is twofold: 1) to reduce the complexity of guideline application ("simplification"); and 2) to improve federal sentencing by working closely with the judiciary and others to refine the guidelines (revisiting the balance of judicial flexibility/discretion and the availability of alternative punishments). The group will comprehensively and aggressively assess each major section of the guidelines, critique application complexities, and develop options for Commission consideration. Complexity is viewed as the source of confusion and frustration in guideline application. Moreover, this confusion results in unreliable application and judicial resistance - two outcomes that undermine the effectiveness of the guidelines.

Guideline complexity derives, in part, from fundamental decisions made by the original Commission in its effort to meet the Sentencing Reform Act's twin goals of: 1) assuring that the purposes of sentencing are met (i.e., just punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation); and 2) providing certainty and fairness in meeting the purposes of sentencing while avoiding unwarranted disparities between similarly situated defendants (see 28 U.S.C. 991(b)(1)). To ensure that the ramifications of all options for change are clear, the group will highlight the broader policy implications of its proposals (e.g., its effect on proportionality or a judge's ability to individualize sentences).


The working group proposes the following strategy to assist commissioners in their deliberations on how they might simplify and improve the guidelines system. The group will prepare concise issue papers on major guideline topics to provide a foundation for Commission consideration of relevant issues and possible sentencing models. Each paper will:

review the history behind the original policy decision so as to ensure that the Commission is sensitive to the underlying principles and the impact of any revisions on these principles;

assess how the particular guideline is working (e.g., application complexities; frequency of use identified through monitoring data);

summarize information needs that might reasonably assist the Commission's decision making on the topic; and

outline broad options for refinement.

These papers will provide sound bases for commissioners, staff, and the public to understand the current guidelines and assess any proposals for change. The working group proposes to discuss each issue with commissioners in an informal working session to receive guidance as to which options to develop in more detail for public comment.

The group is currently drafting issue papers on the following topics:

1. Sentencing Reform Act (and subsequent sentencing legislation)

2. drafting process used by initial Commission; major changes since that time

3. real offense sentencing (Relevant Conduct)

4. criminal History

5. level of detail (specific offense characteristics)

6. chapter Three adjustments

7. departures/offender characteristics

8. sentencing table/sentencing ranges

9. availability of probation/split sentences (alternatives)

10. multiple counts

This methodology will enable staff to provide the Commission the full range of options for reviewing and revising the guidelines. In its review, the working group will examine how state guideline systems have addressed issues that judges and practitioners have found particularly complex in the federal system. In addition, the group will consult closely with judges and practitioners and solicit a wide variety of public comment from the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference, Practitioners' and Probation Officers' Advisory Groups, Department of Justice, Federal and Community Defenders, and others. Finally, the working group will analyze all responsible suggestions for guideline reform from outside individuals and groups.

The simplification process should be developmental and done with caution because significant changes may result in unforeseen anomalies. Therefore, it is important that as the simplification working group develops proposals it ensures that the proposals: 1) be consistent with the Sentencing Reform Act; 2) be sensitive to caselaw; and 3) be aware of the underlying premises that the previous Commission used in developing the guidelines. This caution will ensure that the guidelines are an evolving set of standards that change as information and experience buttresses the need for change.


The working group proposes the following timetable for completion of this project:

Phase I

Prepare issue papers on major guideline topics; discuss with commissioners at working sessions.

Time Frame: June-December 1995

Phase II

Develop and present a refined range of options to Commission for consideration and publication. Regional public hearings held during this phase.

Analyze public comment and revise models to produce guideline amendments. Present options to Commission together with impact analyses.

Time Frame: January-June 1996

Phase III

Publish proposals in Federal Register for comment. Field testing.

Time Frame: July-October 1996

Phase IV

Public hearings, Commission deliberations, fine-tuning of proposals, and submission to Congress.

Time Frame: November 1996-April 1997

United States Sentencing Commission