Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

Sentencing Guidelines Overview

Sentencing guidelines are a set of standards designed to establish rational and consistent sentencing practices within a particular jurisdiction.  All guidelines systems structure judicial sentencing decisions and most systems also regulate the duration of prison terms, but some systems retain a parole board that decides on the timing of release from prison.  Systems also differ as to whether recommended guidelines sentences are legally binding on judges, or are largely or entirely advisory.  At present 20 U.S. states and federal jurisdictions have some form of guidelines, and in twelve of these jurisdictions the guidelines have been in effect for over 25 years. 

In the history of American sentencing law and policy, no approach has proved more successful than the best guidelines systems in balancing the competing values of rule versus discretion, promoting proportionality between punishment severity and offense seriousness, avoiding uncontrolled growth and overcrowding in prison populations, and using available correctional resources to effectively and efficiently protect public safety.  For these reasons, sentencing guidelines have been strongly endorsed in both the American Bar Association’s sentencing standards and in the American Law Institute’s revised Model Penal Code.

The Robina Institute seeks to promote and improve state and federal sentencing guidelines systems, and it employs two main strategies for accomplishing this goal.  First, the Institute produces, collects, and disseminates policy-relevant research about sentencing guidelines and their effects on public safety, correctional resources, and racial disparities.  Second, the Institute provides direct consulting service to jurisdictions seeking to revise and improve their current sentencing guidelines or to implement guidelines for the first time.    

In furtherance of both of these strategies, the Institute developed and launched the Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center, a website that serves as a central source of information related to American sentencing guidelines systems. The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center includes:

  • Current versions of the guidelines in each jurisdiction.
  • Detailed profiles of each sentencing guidelines jurisdiction covering information such as the sentencing commission’s mandate, how presumptive sentences are determined under each jurisdiction’s guidelines, and how the guidelines interact with other criminal laws within the jurisdiction.
  • A searchable repository of materials produced by sentencing guidelines commissions (training manuals, worksheets, reports, meeting summaries).
  • Summaries of important case law defining the allowable scope of appellate review of sentences and, where applicable, interpreting the guidelines.
  • A comparison tool so visitors can examine two sentencing guidelines systems, side by side, and see how each system approaches a particular aspect of guidelines sentencing.
  • In-depth articles covering topics about guidelines and sentencing commissions.

By bringing together, in one place, materials that span all of the current sentencing guidelines systems in the U.S., the Robina Institute’s Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center is able to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information, expertise, and experience; educate on issues related to sentencing policy, guidelines, and commissions; promote multi- jurisdictional comparative research and policy analysis; and promote the adoption and retention of best practices in sentencing guidelines systems.

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Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice
Email: robina@umn.edu · Tel: 612-626-6600