Part II addressed the earliest discussions of sentencing guidelines and determinate reforms within the criminal justice community and the legislature. Today’s post covers “Felony Sentencing in Wisconsin,” the second report conducted by state criminal justice leaders to recommend sentencing guidelines. You may want to refer back to Part II, which provides background on the committee/research group that development the report.
Shane-DuBow and her colleagues launched an in-depth analysis of sentencing practices in the state. Taking a random sample of over 2,600 felony cases committed in 1974 and 1975, the research staff ascertained sentence lengths; collected information on 345 different variables relating to demographics, offender characteristics, and characteristics of the offense; and performed multivariate analyses to calculate the variability within sentences and the influence of the case variables upon them. The researchers also developed models to project the impact of proposed determinate reforms, and provided a comprehensive survey of sentencing reforms in other states to that point.
The results of the study, released in 1979 as Felony Sentencing in Wisconsin, were generally supportive of the status quo. The study found that “sentences appeared in most instances to be appropriately related to considerations of the criminal history of the offender and the relative severity of the offense;” and that “for the most part,” there was no excessive disparity or variability among the sentences of similarly situated offenders. Likewise, the report also made a case against determinate sentencing, projecting that the adoption of a determinate system would “dramatically” increase prison budgets and populations, and defending the substantive principles of judicial discretion that determinacy would undermine. To reduce the variability that did remain, the report followed the Standards and Goals report in suggesting sentencing guidelines as a potentially more effective approach.
Despite the positive view of the indeterminate system Felony Sentencing in Wisconsin had presented, the judiciary perceived legislative interest in systemic reform as continuing to increase. The Committee on Determinate Sentencing would eventually reject determinate reforms as well, but chose to instead recommend strict presumptive guidelines, a policy which would still significantly limit professional discretion. And throughout the 1979 session, legislators continued to introduce bills creating mandatory and/or minimum sentences, raising maximum sentences, and otherwise introducing measures of determinacy into the system. Again, none of those bills came even close to passage, due to disagreements among legislators and defensive lobbying efforts by criminal justice administrators. Nevertheless, the judiciary would soon take further action, apparently concerned that the bills nevertheless represented continued interest in systemic reform.
Part IV describes their further actions, which produced the first piloted set of state sentencing guidelines.