2009 Report: Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System


2016 Recidivism Study OverviewThis paper analyzes alternative sentences for federal offenders and, specifically, United States citizens sentenced under various types of alternatives. This analysis describes current federal sentencing policy governing alternative sentences and examines offenders with alternative sentences using the United States Sentencing Commission’s data. An analysis of factors associated with alternative sentences imposed for eligible offenders provides insight into considerations made by federal sentencing courts in determining whether to impose alternatives. (January 2009)


Key Findings

The key findings of the Commission’s study are:

  • The predominance of prison sentences has been consistent and has been accompanied by slightly increasing rates over the past ten years.

  • Offenders convicted of fraud and other white collar offenses, while still primarily sentenced to prison, also more often are sentenced to alternatives; approximately one-third of fraud and white collar offenders are sentenced to prison alternatives.

  • Nearly equal proportions of White (38.7%) and Black (37.6%) United States citizen offenders are sentenced to prison.

  • Specifically, guideline offense level and Criminal History Category, alone or in combination, are the principal factors determining whether an offender receives an alternative sentence.

  • Offenders with higher levels of education are more likely than less educated offenders to be sentenced to alternatives.

  • The more serious conduct of firearms and immigration offenders, as indicated by guideline factors, is associated with their lower rates of alternative sentences.

  • Drug offenders eligible for alternative sentences receive those alternatives at a relatively high rate (65.3%).

  • The overwhelming majority (95.4%) of offenders eligible for alternative sentences receive offense level decreases for acceptance and, among those, 69.3 percent are sentenced to available alternatives.

  • Effective alternative sanctions are important options for federal, state, and local criminal justice systems. For the appropriate offenders, alternatives to incarceration can provide a substitute for costly incarceration.