Proposed US sentencing system to end parole meets criticism

Proposed new federal sentencing guidelines replacing the criminal parole system with supposedly uniform, determinate prison sentences are scheduled to go to Congress April 13. But critics, responding to the United States Sentencing Commission's invitation to comment on the proposed guidelines, say the uniformity of federal court sentences that would be provided falls far short of justifying abandonment of the longstanding parole system.

The Sentencing Commission was established in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. If Congress does not reject its proposed guidelines within six months, they will become effective.

Some of those who feel the guidelines are inadequate suggest that the deadline for revision and approval should be extended. One of the severest critics is Rutgers University law Prof. Paul H. Robinson, a member of the commission. He says the panel has rushed a tough, complex process and the result is that the guidelines are likely to result in more disparity in criminal sentences rather than less.

But the commission's chairman, United States Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William H. Wilkins Jr., says that, under the proposed guidelines, ``similar offender characteristics, similar crimes, will equal a set time [length of sentence] and eliminate unwarranted disparity in the system.'' Under the new guidelines, parole is replaced by what Judge Wilkins calls a ``truth in sentencing system.'' Sentences would be determinate for fixed terms, and convicts could not be released early. But when they had served their allotted term in prison, release would be unconditional.

Critics charge that the guidelines do not sufficiently address disparities between sentences handed down by judges for similar offenses. Eliminating parole under such circumstances would condemn some defendants to serving inequitably long terms, they say.

Professor Robinson says that while ``the guidelines look like they provide uniformity, they don't. The fact of the matter is, the commission never systematically ranked offenses.''

He notes that under the new guidelines one judge might give a 12-month sentence for bribing a union official while another, using the same guidelines in the same case, could impose a sentence of 60 months, a range of 500 percent.

Robinson argues that the parole system serves as the only check on sentencing. ``Sentencing wisdom differs from judge to judge,'' he says. ``If you are going to get uniformity, you have to limit their discretion.''

American Bar Association president Eugene C. Thomas says the guidelines proposal requires ``significantly greater refinement than we believe can be accomplished in the remaining month before the commission must present the finished product to Congress.'' He has asked the commission to request another year from Congress to subject the guidelines to ``detailed and critical'' review.

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