This essay explores how the role of the United States Sentencing Commission has changed over time. It has gone through three different phases in terms of its role (either actual or perceived) in federal sentencing. The first phase covers the Commission at its inception, and the perceived role of the Commission that dominated then was that of a politically insulated, expert agency that would serve, essentially, as an independent policy maker. This vision of the Commission never materialized, but it is important to understand this model in order to appreciate why the Commission was set up the way it was. During the second and dominant phase, which lasted for roughly two decades, from 1986 until 2007, the Commission played a weak supporting role to the political actors who oversaw its work, with Congress largely controlling its output. This period was characterized by political battering by Congress. Given the political climate of the time, that meant increases in sentences, but little else, from the Commission. The third phase began in 2007 and continues today. The Commission is now seen as a respected supplier of data, and its judgments are given more deference. In a sense, this role combines the first two. The Commission is recognized for its expertise, but that expertise is valuable only insofar as the information it generates has political value. The essay concludes with ways the Commission’s design can be improved to give it greater political influence in setting sentencing policy.

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