An eighteen-month period from the fall of 1985 to the spring of 1987 witnessed the most significant change to the federal criminal justice system in American history. In those eighteen months, the United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”), a new and novel independent agency in the federal judicial branch, developed sentencing guidelines for all federal judges during the same period when Congress was enacting new mandatory minimum statutory penalties that dramatically increased existing penalties for drug trafficking and firearms offenses. This Article describes this founding era of structured federal sentencing, beginning with the Commission’s first meeting and ending with the transmittal of the initial Guidelines Manual to Congress on April 13, 1987, for its 180-day review period. As the guidelines remain the “lodestone” of federal sentencing thirty years later, and as improving the criminal justice system continues to be an important national bipartisan aspiration, a thorough exploration of the history of the original Commission is both timely and important.
Parts II and III of this Article discuss the historical context in which the Commission was created, the key players (Commissioners and staff) during the Commission’s first eighteen months, and the initial challenges facing the Commission. Part IV examines several of the key policy decisions of the original Commission that are reflected in the Guidelines Manual and that still largely govern federal sentencing today, albeit in an “advisory” rather than a “mandatory” guidelines system. Finally, Part V offers some conclusions about the work of the original Commission.