In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sentencing Guidelines

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • International Guidelines
  • Societal Impact of Guidelines
  • Alternatives and Non-Prison Sentences
  • Predictive Sentences and Criminal History

Criminology Sentencing Guidelines
Anat Kimchi, Brian D. Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0139


Sentencing guidelines are formal sentencing recommendations that provide benchmarks for appropriate punishments to judges at sentencing. They often consist of two-dimensional grids that rank the seriousness of the current offense along one axis and the prior offending history of the offender on the other. Cells within the grid provide specific ranges of punishments that are presumed to be appropriate in typical cases involving typical offenders. Many sentencing guidelines are established and monitored by a specialized administrative body known as a sentencing commission. Since the early 1980s, sentencing guidelines have been implemented in numerous US states and in the federal justice system with the express goals of reducing unwarranted disparity and increasing consistency, uniformity, and transparency in punishment.

General Overviews

Relatively few comprehensive overviews of sentencing guidelines exist. Frankel 1973 is the seminal text that was the catalyst behind early sentencing guidelines. It is an eloquent diatribe against unstructured and indeterminate sentencing practices, and it represents a useful primary text on the origin of sentencing reform that is appropriate for graduate courses. Blumstein, et al. 1983 and Tonry 1996 are both classic overviews of early sentencing innovations, including guidelines. The former is a comprehensive two-volume report from the National Research Council that provides a summary of diverse research and policy issues, and the latter is an early treatment of the emergence of sentencing guidelines in the broader context of modern sentencing reforms. Both are useful as general resources on historical sentencing reform, and the latter may serve as a stand-alone text for graduate seminars. Similarly, von Hirsch, et al. 1987 provides an authoritative overview of the early formation and impact of state sentencing commissions. Tonry 2019 provides a more recent overview of a broad range of sentencing issues and research, including several chapters dedicated specifically to state, federal, and international sentencing guidelines. Spohn 2009 provides a more general overview of various sentencing issues, including a summary of research on sentencing guidelines. It is useful as a general introduction for students with no background in courts and sentencing, or as a primary text for an undergraduate course. Frase 2005, Kauder and Ostrom 2008, and the Robina Institute’s Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center provide more detailed examinations of specific sentencing guidelines systems, including comprehensive information about similarities and differences among different types of guidelines in different states. Despite the general popularity of sentencing guidelines in both research and policy circles, relatively few empirical evaluations have been conducted on their overall effectiveness. Tonry 1987 and Tonry 1996 offer valuable summaries of the early evaluation literature and Johnson and Lee 2013 provides an overview of more recent evidence for racial disparity under sentencing guidelines. The vast majority of research has focused on one of only a few state systems or on the federal guidelines.

  • Blumstein, Alfred, Jacqueline Cohen, Susan E. Martin, and Michael H. Tonry, eds. 1983. Research on sentencing: The search for reform. 2 vols. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    Authoritative and comprehensive two-volume report from the National Research Council expert panel that covers diverse issues in sentencing reform, including sentencing guidelines. Although somewhat dated, it is a classic and comprehensive resource on contemporary sentencing issues.

  • Frankel, Marvin. 1973. Criminal Sentences: Law without Order. New York: Hill and Wang.

    This book, written by a federal judge, was the first to lay out the essential arguments for why sentencing guidelines are needed and how they might be implemented. It is an eloquently written criticism of indeterminate sentencing that speaks out against excessive judicial power. It serves as a useful primary source for graduate courses in courts and sentencing.

  • Frase, Richard. 2005. State sentencing guidelines: Diversity, consensus, and unresolved policy issues. Columbia Law Review 105:1190–1232.

    Provides an overview of state sentencing guidelines that highlights critical areas of consensus and diversity among different guidelines systems and focuses on key policy decisions that need to be made in the creation and improvement of future sentencing guidelines.

  • Johnson, Brian D., and Jacqueline G. Lee. 2013. Racial disparity under sentencing guidelines: A survey of recent research and emerging perspectives. Sociology Compass 7.7: 503–514.

    DOI: 10.1111/soc4.12046

    Reviews empirical research on racial and ethnic disparities under guidelines, highlighting advancements in the field and directions for future research.

  • Kauder, Neil B., and Brian J. Ostrom. 2008. State sentencing guidelines: Profile and continuum. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts.

    An overview of state sentencing guidelines. It profiles individual state guidelines systems and places them on a continuum from more voluntary to more mandatory guidelines.

  • Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center. Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Univ. of Minnesota.

    Comprehensive and regularly updated resource providing a collection of downloadable material related to American sentencing guidelines and commissions as well as an interactive comparison of jurisdictions. Available material includes guidelines, reports, and laws produced by jurisdictions as well as general and in-depth articles highlighting relevant issues.

  • Spohn, Cassia. 2009. How do judges decide? The search for fairness and justice in punishment. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A comprehensive overview of issues in judicial decision making that includes several chapters that address research and policy on sentencing guidelines. Suitable primarily for undergraduate courses or as a basic introduction to a graduate course.

  • Tonry, Michael. 1987. Sentencing guidelines and their effects. In The sentencing commission and its guidelines. Edited by Andrew von Hirsch, Kay Knapp, and Michael Tonry, 16–46. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

    Provides a basic introduction and summary of early sentencing commissions and their guidelines and also includes a useful discussion of the impacts that sentencing guidelines had in several different states.

  • Tonry, Michael. 1996. Sentencing matters. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a useful overview of historical sentencing reforms with a comprehensive discussion of the formation of sentencing commissions and sentencing guidelines in several states and the federal justice system. It includes a detailed discussion of research evidence on the effects of sentencing guidelines in terms of the multiple goals of sentencing reform as well as related issues such as intermediate sanctions and mandatory minimums. An essential text for graduate seminars in courts and sentencing.

  • Tonry, Michael, ed. 2019. American sentencing: What happens and why? Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An edited volume that provides an overview of current issues in sentencing practices and reforms. Separate chapters are dedicated to sentencing guidelines in state and federal systems, including a comparative overview of the evolution of guidelines in Minnesota and England. Relevant issues such racial and ethnic disparities and predictions of dangerousness are also addressed.

  • von Hirsch, Andrew, and Michael Tonry, eds. 1987. The sentencing commission and its guidelines. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

    An edited volume by three experts in sentencing reform that discusses the foundation of sentencing commissions and sentencing guidelines, along with early research evidence on their effectiveness and ongoing policy debates in guidelines implementation. Provides a thorough introduction to and overview of sentencing commissions and sentencing guidelines for scholars in the area.

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