The Story of Federal Probation
37 Pages Posted: 25 May 2016
Date Written: May 24, 2016
Critics of the modern federal sentencing system regularly assert that the sentencing guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”), have resulted in unnecessarily harsh prison sentences and overcrowded federal prisons. As a central part of their critique, they specifically claim that the Commission’s policy choices, as reflected in the guidelines, have been responsible for the steep decline in the rate of federal probationary sentences (and other non-incarceration sentences, such as a fine only) imposed during the past three decades. That rate has fallen from around half of all federal sentences in the decades before the guidelines went into effect in late 1987, to slightly less than a quarter of federal sentences shortly after the guidelines were first implemented nationwide in the early 1990s, and to one in ten federal sentences today.
This Article assesses those critics’ claims about federal probation sentences and, in the process, tells the story of federal probation — beginning with a short history of federal probation from its creation in 1925, leading up to when the SRA created the Commission, and continuing through the ensuing three decades to the present time. This Article discusses how the original Commission followed Congress’s directive to increase the overall rate of federal prison sentences (and thus reduce the rate of probation), but also analyzes how several factors unrelated to the guidelines are as much — or even more — responsible for the substantial decrease in the rate of federal probationary sentences since the guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987.
In particular, the current low rate of federal probationary sentences is in large part explained by: (1) significant changes in the types of federal offenses prosecuted during the past three decades (with two-thirds of federal cases today involving substantial drug-trafficking offenses, firearms offenses, or immigration offenses, which typically do not involve realistic candidates for probation); (2) a significant increase in the average federal defendant’s criminal history during the past three decades; (3) the enactment of several federal penal statutes either requiring a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment or otherwise prohibiting probation as a sentence; (4) the implementation of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which today results in the pre-sentencing detention of three-quarters of federal offenders (and creates a strong incentive for detained defendants not to ask for probation); and (5) a significant increase in the percentage of non-citizen offenders in the federal criminal justice system (who are not eligible for probation as a practical matter).
Keywords: Sentencing Guidelines, United States Sentencing Commission, Probation
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