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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Federal Guidelines
  • State Guidelines

Criminology Sentencing Guidelines
Brian D. Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • 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. Spohn 2009 provides a more general overview of a broad range of sentencing issues, including a summary of research on sentencing guidelines. It is useful as a broad introduction for students with no background in courts and sentencing, or as a primary text for an undergraduate course. Both Frase 2005 and Kauder and Ostrom 2008 provide more detailed examinations of specific sentencing guidelines systems, including comprehensive information about similarities and differences among different types of guidelines in different states. Research on sentencing guidelines in international contexts is becoming increasingly important. Although few comprehensive treatments are currently available, Tonry and Frase 2001 is a useful starting point for examining sentencing reforms in international context.

  • 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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

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

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

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    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. 1996. Sentencing matters. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    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 as well as related issues such as intermediate sanctions and mandatory minimums. An essential text for graduate seminars in courts and sentencing.

  • Tonry, Michael, and Richard Frase, eds. 2001. Sentencing and sanctions in Western countries. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    An edited volume that focuses on sentencing practices in international context. It provides separate chapters on different sentencing issues in Australia, England, Finland, the Netherlands, and Germany, along with evaluative essays on comparative analysis of sentencing research and policy across international contexts.

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

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    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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