On October 29, 1985, seven members of a newly established federal agency met to do what had never been done before: to create a set of national sentencing policies and practices that would apply to federal criminal cases throughout the country. Their task was enormous and their time limited—with only eighteen months to develop what became known as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. On April 13, 1987, the United States Sentencing Commission, by a vote of six to one, promulgated the first Guidelines Manual. What was the decision-making process? What ideas failed and which ones carried the day? Which Commissioners and Commission staff can be credited for particular aspects of the Guidelines Manual? In short, how did the original Commission develop the original Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
The Article that follows offers detailed responses to these questions. Its authors, two members of the Commission’s staff—Brent E. Newton and Dawinder (“Dave”) S. Sidhu—have engaged in extensive research about the deliberative process and key policy decisions of the original Commission. Their Article does not purport to offer a definitive historical account of the original Commission, but it does expand substantially upon the existing scholarship and offers new insights into the groundbreaking work of the original Commission. It does so by drawing on a wide variety of historical sources, many of them not publicly available. They have reviewed thousands of pages of records, including the original Commission’s meeting minutes, transcripts of its public hearings, its correspondence with outside parties, its internal memoranda, and data analyses. They also have compared the different iterations of draft guidelines prepared during the first eighteen months of the Commission’s existence, which culminated in the promulgation of the original Guidelines Manual in 1987. Finally, their Article has the benefit of oral histories of some of the original Commissioners (Judge William Wilkins, Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge George MacKinnon, and Commissioner Ilene Nagel) and a key original staff member (General Counsel and future Commissioner John Steer), which were recorded in the 1990s.