Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

Criminal History Enhancements Overview

The goals of the Robina Institute’s Criminal History Enhancements Project are to study the widely varying criminal history enhancement formulas found in U.S. sentencing guidelines systems, and encourage each system to examine its use of criminal history to determine whether it is operating in a just and cost-effective manner.

An offender’s criminal history (record of prior convictions) is a major sentencing factor in all American jurisdictions that have implemented sentencing guidelines — offenders in the highest criminal history category often have recommended prison sentences that are many times longer than the recommended sentences for offenders in the lowest category. Criminal history sentence enhancements thus substantially increase the size and expense of prison populations.  And since offenders with higher criminal history scores tend to be older, the result is often to fill expensive prison beds with offenders who are past their peak offending years. Such enhancements also have a strong disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities, undercut the goal of making sentence severity proportional to offense severity, and send many nonviolent offenders to prison.

The Criminal History Project team completed a comprehensive survey and analysis of criminal history formulas found in guidelines systems, and the results of the survey were published in the Criminal History Enhancements Sourcebook (2015). The Sourcebook is a unique resource that brings together, for the first time, information on criminal history enhancements in all existing U.S. sentencing guidelines systems. Building on this base, the Sourcebook examines major variations in the approaches taken by these systems, and identifies the underlying sentencing policy issues raised by such enhancements.

The Project team is currently conducting empirical research on the principal rationales underlying prior record enhancements.  An opinion survey examines the extent to which the public believes that repeat offenders are more culpable for their current offense, and/or that an offender’s criminal history score is a reliable indicator of his or her likelihood of continuing to offend.  A study of offenders sentenced under the Minnesota Guidelines is assessing the extent to which that state’s criminal history score, and each score component, predicts the frequency and seriousness of crimes committed after a sentenced offender is back in the community.  Other current or planned project activities include publishing books, articles, and policy briefs drawing on the project research described above; encouraging closer ties between guidelines policy-makers and criminologists who study criminal career patterns; and conducting or encouraging research on the extent to which judges in non-guidelines systems – even without formal criminal history scoring rules -- are enhancing sentences based on similar prior record factors.