Sentencing Reform “Reform” through
Sentencing Information Systems
Marc L. Miller
Norval Morris often quotes an eminent nineteenth-century English politician who, when asked about proposals for parliamentary reform, responded, “Reform, reform. Don't talk to me about reform. We are in enough trouble already.”
Sentencing has undergone more reform over the past several decades than any other area of criminal justice, and perhaps as much reform as any area of the law. Indeed, one way to describe sentencing reform over the past half century is that law came to sentencing—an idea framed in the title of Marvin Frankel's famous speech and book, Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order (Frankel 1973).
About half of the U.S. states and the U.S. federal system have adopted “guideline” sentencing reforms over the past 30 years. These reforms vary substantially (Frase 1997, 2000; Reitz 1997) and have succeeded in varying degrees in both popular and professional assessment (Frase 1997, 2000; Miller 1995; Wright 2002). Guideline reforms typically involve the legislative creation of a sentencing commission, often a permanent commission, to promulgate sentencing rules and conduct sentencing research (Tonry 1996). The “commission and guideline” reform movement is now sufficiently advanced that the American Law Institute has begun the process of developing a model sentencing code based on the best practices from among these reforms (Reitz 2002).
Despite the high visibility of guideline sentencing reforms in legal, popular, and scholarly discourse, about half the U.S. states still use systems primarily modeled on an indeterminate sentencing model (Reitz 2001). In many of these states some common aspects of guideline systems other than the core elements of commissions and guidelines have been adopted, including various kinds of mandatory-minimum sentences, three-strikes provisions, and restrictions on parole (Wright 1998; Reitz, chapter 8 in this volume). Just over half the states, lured in large part by federal funding enticements, have adopted “truth in sentencing policies” requiring violent felony offenders to serve at least 85 percent of the sen-