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Downward Departures from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

NCJ Number
Date Published
October 2003
177 pages
This document discusses departure decisions regarding sentencing guidelines.
Departures play an important role in the Federal sentencing guidelines system because there may be offense guidelines that do not specify a sentence adjustment for a particular circumstance because either it occurs infrequently in connection with a particular offense, is difficult to quantify, or is truly unique. When such a circumstance does occur, it may be important and could be accounted for only by permitting the court to depart from the guidelines. Departure decisions also provide important feedback from courts regarding the operation of the guidelines and improve its ability to make ongoing refinements to the sentencing guidelines. Frequent or increasing use of departures for a particular offense might indicate that the guideline for that offense does not adequately take into account a particular recurring circumstance. Statutory requirements enacted by the PROTECT Act are expected to have a broad impact on departure practices. Newly implemented policies by the Department of Justice are expected to impact departure practices significantly. Missing and unclear sentencing documentation limits the ability to draw conclusions from United States Sentencing Commission departure data. Government initiated departures and Southwest border districts comprise a significant portion of downward departures. The PROTECT Act made direct congressional amendments to the sentencing guidelines to restrict the availability of departures for certain child crimes and sex offenses. Another amendment prohibits several factors as grounds for departure, restricts the availability of certain other departures, clarifies when certain departures are appropriate, and limits the extent of departure permissible for certain offenders. Among the newly forbidden grounds for departure are the defendant's acceptance of responsibility for the offense and the defendant's addiction to gambling. The Commission is continuing to work on several specific areas that affect the incidence of departures. 16 figures, 172 footnotes, 3 appendices