Key Elements

Key Elements
  • Active Sentencing Commission

    Active Sentencing Commission

    Indicates whether the jurisdiction has or once had an active sentencing commission to review and periodically update the guidelines.

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  • Prison and Jail Resource Management

    Prison and Jail Resource Management

    Indicates whether one of the goals of the guidelines is to help manage jail and prison resources.

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  • Enforcement by Appeals

    Enforcement by Appeals

    Indicates whether and to what extent the parties can appeal the sentence on the grounds that it is not consistent with guidelines rules or policies.

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  • Parole Discretion Abolished

    Parole Discretion Abolished

    Indicates the extent to which parole as the mechanism for determining the timing of release from prison has been abolished or retained.

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  • Non-Felony Level Offenses Also Covered

    Non-Felony Level Offenses Also Covered

    Indicates whether the guidelines cover felony offenses only or felony and non-felony offenses.

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  • Sentencing Grids Used

    Sentencing Grids Used

    Indicates whether the jurisdiction employs sentencing grids, or whether narrative rules and/or worksheets are used to derive recommended sentences.

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  • Consecutive Sentencing Regulated

    Consecutive Sentencing Regulated

    Indicates whether the guidelines limit the sentencing judge’s discretion in choosing between consecutive and concurrent prison sentences for multiple current offenses.

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  • Guidelines Require Legislative Approval

    Guidelines Require Legislative Approval

    Indicates whether and to what extent modifications to the guidelines require legislative approval before taking effect.

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    Active Sentencing Commission

    Almost all jurisdictions with guideline sentencing systems also have active sentencing commissions, but there are exceptions in jurisdictions like Tennessee and Florida. Active sentencing commissions are responsible for revisions and updates to the sentencing guidelines. They often monitor the use of the guidelines and track rates of judicial compliance. They may also study other important aspects of sentencing or criminal justice and provide policy resources in those areas.

    Note that there are also jurisdictions with active sentencing commissions but without sentencing guidelines: these are Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, and New York. (Note that some jurisdictions, such as Alaska, have commissions that make recommendations about the content of sentencing laws but do not draft guidelines). For further information, see our articles on Sentencing Commissions and Guidelines by the Numbers and on Timelines of Sentencing Commissions and Sentencing Guidelines Enactments: 1978 to the Present

    Prison and Jail Resource Management

    One promising feature of guidelines is that they can help estimate needs and manage resources by making punishment more predictable, especially in conjunction with other forecasting tools (see, for example, the Model Penal Code: Sentencing § 6B.02(9) and commentary).  All jurisdictions with sentencing guidelines identify management of prison and jail resources as a goal. For more information, see Why Have U.S. State and Federal Jurisdictions Enacted Sentencing Guidelines?

    Enforcement by Appeals

    Jurisdictions with sentencing guidelines vary on whether or to what extent parties can appeal a sentence on the grounds that it is not consistent with guidelines rules or policies. In some jurisdictions like Maryland or Utah, the guidelines are advisory only; where this is the case, no appeals based on the guidelines are allowed. In contrast, one hallmark of a mandatory guidelines system like the one in Minnesota is that all departure sentences are subject to appeal. This process reinforces the binding authority of the guidelines. Finally, some jurisdictions allow for appeals both from departure sentences and from sentences that are within the guidelines. In North Carolina, for example, a defendant may petition for review of a sentence within the guidelines and the court can choose to grant discretionary review. 

    Parole Discretion Abolished

    The jurisdictions we profiled differ on the extent to which discretionary parole, as the mechanism for determining the timing of release from prison, has been abolished or retained. Parole release discretion for all crimes (other than life without parole) has been retained in Alabama, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Utah. In Arkansas and Tennessee parole release discretion has been abolished for certain crimes and retained for others. Finally, in Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., and the U.S. federal system, discretionary parole has been abolished for all offenders except for those with sentences of life with the possibility of parole. Generally, in these jurisdictions, prison sentences may be reduced only for good conduct.

    For more information, see In Depth: Sentencing Guidelines and Discretionary Parole Release.

    Non-Felony Level Offenses Also Covered

    A majority of jurisdictions have established sentencing guidelines only for felony offenses. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Washington D.C. Six jurisdictions, including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, have created sentencing guidelines for all crimes except for petty misdemeanors. In the U.S. federal system, guidelines have been created for felonies as well as for Class A (more serious) misdemeanors. 

    Sentencing Grids Used

    Jurisdictions with sentencing guidelines may choose a variety of different ways to express them and to facilitate sentence calculations in each criminal case. One of the most common ways to do this is through a sentencing grid. In Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Tennessee, and the U.S. federal system, one grid is used to calculate all guidelines sentences. Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Washington D.C. utilize two or more grids, applicable to different types of crimes, to calculate guidelines sentences. The remainder of the jurisdictions (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia) use various other methods such as narrative rules or worksheets to communicate their sentencing schemes. 

    Consecutive Sentencing Regulated

    Guidelines can sometimes limit the sentencing judge’s discretion in choosing between consecutive (back-to-back) or concurrent (overlapping) prison sentences for multiple offenses. Eight systems with sentencing guidelines have limited judicial discretion in choosing between consecutive or concurrent sentences, either through language within the guidelines themselves or by statue. These jurisdictions are Alabama, Alaska, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, Washington D.C., and the U.S. federal system. In the remaining jurisdictions, which include Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia, judges retain full discretion in sentencing on multiple convictions. 

    Guidelines Require Legislative Approval

    Jurisdictions have adopted many different processes for making changes to their sentencing guidelines. In some jurisdictions, the legislature must approve of the guidelines modifications or enact them into law. In contrast, in other jurisdictions commissions publish guidelines modifications that automatically go into effect unless the legislature acts to reject them. Other jurisdictions have adopted a formal administrative rulemaking process for guidelines modifications. In a handful of jurisdictions, there are yet other approaches taken; for example, making modifications to the guidelines only if new legislation has passed (Delaware) or having changes to guidelines for non-violent offenses and violent offenses go through two separate processes (Alabama). For further information, see Sentencing Commissions and Guidelines by the Numbers.