The percentage of federal inmates that are minorities has increased sharply since sentencing guidelines took effect in 1987 and now accounts for a majority of the prison population, reports the Associated Press, quoting a review of 15 years of data by the United States Sentencing Commission. The panel examined how well the guidelines had brought uniformity to punishments. It found that while sentencing had become “more certain and predictable,” disparities still existed among races and regions of the country, with blacks generally receiving harsher punishment than whites.
The findings come as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the guidelines, which advocates say are crucial to achieving fairness in punishment. The justices could decide this week whether to throw out the guidelines because they allows judges, rather than juries, to consider factors that can add years to sentences. The study found that the average federal prison sentence today is about 50 months, twice what it was in 1984, when lawmakers began calling for a uniform sentencing system. The difference is due mostly to the guidelines’ elimination of parole for offenses like drug trafficking. “The big unanswered question is, Do we need to have sentences growing this way?” said one sentencing expert, Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University. “Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days of complete unguided judicial discretion.”