Among the most important appointments to be made by the next president are the members of the Sentencing Commission established by the new criminal law reform statute. The seven members, of whom at least four must be sitting federal judges, will write new guidelines controlling all sentences for federal crimes.
The commission was born out of general dissatisfaction with current sentencing practices. Judges across the country have been imposing widely disparate sentences for the same crime. In some cases the penalties have been so far out of line -- either too lenient or too harsh -- as to diminish respect for the law. There has also been dissatisfaction with the broad discretion given to parole authorities, who have the power to release prisoners after only a fraction of a sentence has been completed and who can change the date of release at will. The system often fails to meet both the expectations of society and the needs of the inmates.
Sentence reform is designed to address these problems in two ways: to set uniform guidelines for sentences that all federal judges will use, and to abolish parole. The objective is to achieve equity in penalties received and time served. A convicted criminal would know in advance, for example, that if he robs a bank using a weapon and injures one of the victims, and if he has a prior record of two felony convictions, he is sure to receive a sentence that is within the narrow range set out in the guidelines for a crime that has been committed, with these aggravating circumstances, by someone with a record like his. The same guidelines will apply in Alaska and Alabama. Judges who deviate from the recommended range will have to state their reasons on the record, and both prosecutors and defendants will be able to appeal a sentence.
ka4>The new scheme will only work if the commissioners have the broad knowledge of criminal law and penology required by the task, and the compassion and good sense to balance the community's interests and those of the offender. It is important that recommended sentences will have to be considerably shorter than the maximum terms now allowed in order to avoid swamping the prison system, since the option of early parole will not be available. A good, bipartisan commission chosen, as the law requires, after consultation with "judges, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, senior citizens, victims of crimes and others interested in the criminal justice process" should be able to devise guidelines that are uniform, easily understood and fair. That will be a big improvement over the current system, which is often both arbitrary and unjust.