Measuring Criminal History in a Guideline System: When "None" Is "Some"

Linda D. Maxfield, U.S. Sentencing Commission
Tim Drisko, U.S. Sentencing Commission

In the federal courts, one of the factors determining guideline sentence length is prior criminal experience, where offenders without any, or with only minimal, criminal history (as measured by the guidelines) receive shorter sentences that offenders with more prior criminality. However, the current guideline measure results in a lowest Criminal History Category (CHC I) that includes offenders with varying amounts of prior involvement with the criminal justice system. This study proposes alternate measures of criminal history that more accurately distinguish among the criminal experiences of CHC I offenders, and suggests a strategy that defines "first offender." Using new data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the study compares offenders in CHC I with other federal offenders, demonstrating how the guidelines' current criminal history definitions operate and how they may be deficient in isolating the more culpable offender. This study is a statistical analysis of the association between offender culpability and the following traits of prior criminal history: minor offense convictions, serious convictions from distant years, foreign or juvenile convictions, dangerousness of prior offenses, prior arrests without convictions, or characteristics of the instant offense.

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Updated 05/20/2006