Warranted and unwarranted complexity in the U.S. sentencing guideline

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The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines are highly complex because of both initial policy decisions and subsequent pressures from Congress and appellate courts. The two initial policy decisions that were largely responsible for this complexity were (a) basing guidelines on “relevant conduct” rather than on the offense of conviction and (b) specifying in detail the number and precise sentencing value of aggravating and mitigating factors. Given this initial bias toward specificity, it was inevitable that the complexity in the guidelines would become worse as Congress pressed for further distinctions and the Sentencing Commission responded to those statutory actions. The complexity of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines has detrimental effects on both the perceived and actual fairness of the laws. Although statistical analyses indicate that the most complex guidelines (as indexed by the length of each guideline, the length of application notes for each guideline, and the number of amendments to each guideline) are also those that are most frequently used, there is also evidence that at least some of the complexity in the guidelines (the number of specific offense characteristics in each guideline and the number of cross references) is unwarranted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)357-382
Number of pages26
JournalLaw and Policy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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