The United States Sentencing Commission is an independent ongoing agency within the judicial branch of the US government. The Commission was created by the Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. The work of the Commission has a tremendous impact on the nation’s criminal justice system. The first task of the Commission was to develop a uniform set of sentencing guidelines for federal courts. The constitutionality of the Commission was challenged on several occasions on the ground that it was a congressional encroachment on the power of the executive. However, in 1989 the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Commission. The principal functions of the Sentencing Commission are the following:
(1) to establish a uniform set of sentencing policies and practices for federal courts. This includes providing appropriate guidelines regarding the form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes;
(2) to advise and assist Congress and the executive branch in the development of effective and efficient policies related to crime and criminal acts; and
(3) to collect, analyze, research, and distribute information on federal crime and sentencing issues, so as to serve as an information resource for Congress, the executive branch, courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community, and the general public.
The Sentencing Commission consists of seven voting members who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The members have a six year term. At least three of the commissioners shall be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party. The Attorney General is an ex officio member of the Commission. The Commission staff is divided into five offices: General Counsel, Education and Sentencing Practice, Research and Data, Legislative and Public Affairs, and Administration. The director of each office reports to the staff director who in turn reports to the chair. The staff director supervises and coordinates all functions of the agency.
The Sentencing Commission is charged with the ongoing responsibility of evaluating the effects of sentencing guidelines on the criminal justice system and making appropriate recommendations to Congress. The sentencing guidelines provide federal judges with fair and consistent sentencing ranges to consult at sentencing. While developing the guidelines, the Sentencing Commission takes into account both the seriousness of the criminal conduct as well as the defendant’s criminal record.