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Sentencing Goals and Their Application in the Federal Courts

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 1980
96 pages
This report presents the methodology and findings of a series of surveys on sentencing practices in Federal courts, so as to assist a Federal Sentencing Commission in the construction of sentencing guidelines.
The questions posed about sentencing goals pertained to the importance of various sentencing goals among legal professionals and the public, as well as the extent to which the courts achieve them; the characteristics of judges that influence their sentencing philosophies; and the influence of various goal perspectives on the severity and form of criminal sentences given by judges. Overall, the surveys explored the extent of agreement among judges and the public about sentencing goals and the way in which these goals are incorporated into sentencing decisions. The surveys involved Federal district judges, members of the U.S. Parole Commission, samples of U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys, defense attorneys who practice in Federal courts, U.S. probation officers, a representative sample of the general public, and a sample of incarcerated Federal offenders. All interviews were conducted in person between September 1979 and January 1980. Although the surveys found that specific sentencing goals were central in determining the form and length of sentences administered, there was substantial variation among judges regarding the priority given to various sentencing goals (general deterrence, special deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation). There was also disagreement about the extent to which each goal is currently being achieved. Disparities in these areas existed not only among the corps of Federal judges but also among other legal professionals as well as the public. A number of implications are drawn from the surveys for the development of sentencing guidelines. First, despite disagreement about specific goals and their application, there is broad consensus among all legal professionals and the public that sentencing should be directed toward the achievement of utilitarian goals. Second, the level of disagreement about both general goals and their specific application argues for continuing dialog about the purposes of sentencing. Third, any effort to reach broader agreement on sentencing goals should be linked to seeking consensus on various forms of correctional conditions used for offenders. Finally, the level of disagreement about goals, the sizeable information gaps, and the uncertainty about how sentencing goals relate to the sentencing process suggests that a Sentencing Commission should first focus on the incorporation of specific offense/offender factors into sentencing guidelines. 20 tables, 5 figures, and appended supplementary data