Learn about the Massachusetts Sentencing Guidelines

Find out why the Sentencing Guidelines were created and how they work.

Table of Contents


In April 1996, the commission submitted its Report to the General Court, culminating an intense 2-year effort of research, debate, and deliberations. The result is a comprehensive and balanced set of sentencing guidelines that will provide greater uniformity and certainty in sentencing so that victims and offenders alike will understand the meaning and effect of the sentence imposed. The guidelines are intended to promote fairness and reduce disparity while preserving that degree of judicial discretion necessary to fashion the sentence appropriate for the individual offender and the specific offense. The Report to the General Court was unanimously adopted by commission members. It presents the philosophical and policy bases for the guidelines. The recommendation of the Report have been incorporated into the sentencing guidelines legislation, which is presently before the Legislature.

Why does Massachusetts need sentencing guidelines?

The problems with sentencing in Massachusetts were articulated in a Boston Bar Association / Crime and Justice Foundation report in 1991, which concluded that:

  • Sentencing in Massachusetts is "haphazard, confusing and archaic"
  • There is substantial disproportionality in sentences given for various offenses and a lack of uniformity among sentences imposed for the same offense

The sentencing guidelines will:

  • Promote greater uniformity and fairness in sentencing
  • Reduce unwarranted disparity
  • Encourage the use of intermediate sanctions in appropriate cases
  • Moderate mandatory drug sentencing
  • Hold judges more accountable in sentencing
  • In these times of severe fiscal constraints, serve as a management tool to more effectively control and allocate criminal justice resources

The sentencing guidelines legislation presents a compelling opportunity to effect far-reaching, substantive criminal justice reform, and, at the same time, establish a systematic framework for managing and containing criminal justice costs. Under existing sentencing, there is a lack of consistency or predictability in sentencing, which makes it difficult to systematically assess the impact of current sentencing statutes on correctional populations. In contrast, the sentencing guidelines would promote greater uniformity and predictability in sentencing by establishing reasonable parameters for structuring judicial discretion. The enhanced predictability would allow for more reliable impact analyses on correctional populations and thereby serve as an important management tool for controlling such resources.

The guidelines would provide a neutral framework for:

  • Assessing the impact of sentencing policy on correctional populations
  • Formulating informed and rational sentencing policies
  • Managing correctional and other criminal justice resources

How many sentencing guidelines bills are before the Legislature and what is the projected impact?

There are 4 sentencing guidelines bills presently before the Legislature:

  • S. 219, filed by Senator Marian Walsh, and H. 3302, filed by Representative David P. Linsky, are identical and mirror the recommendations of the Sentencing Commission
  • H. 2749, filed by Representative A. Stephen Tobin, replicates the bill that was engrossed in the House in the fall of 2001
  • H. 2750, filed by Representative A. Stephen Tobin, replicates the bill that was reported out by the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice earlier in 2001

The commission recently updated its analysis of the impact of the guidelines legislation on the correctional population, using more recent data and adjusting certain assumptions to reflect current criminal justice patterns. The 8-year projections indicated that under the commission's guidelines proposal, there would be more violent offenders incarcerated and fewer non-violent and substance-abusing offenders. Overall, the correctional population is projected to be about the same under the commission's guidelines proposal as it is projected to be under existing sentencing. A comparison of the projected impact of the 3 different versions of the guidelines legislation is presented below:

Eight-Year Projection of the Impact of the Three Versions of Sentencing Guidelines Legislation State and County Correctional Populations
  S. 219/H. 3302 H. 2749 vs. Existing H. 2750 vs. Existing
Department of Correction 55 2505 1511
Houses of Correction -368 734 189
Total -313 3239 1700

What is the process for formulating sentencing guidelines?

  • Composition of the commission reflected diverse criminal justice perspectives and philosophies
  • Vigorous debate on many issues
  • Commission members unanimously adopted the Report to the General Court, and S. 219 and H. 3302 reflect the recommendations of this report
  • Empirical research informed guidelines development process
  • Research on existing sentencing practices, time currently being served, and the projected impact of the proposed sentencing guidelines on correctional populations informed the process
    • The process to formulate the guidelines was designed to be open in order to elicit input from all interested parties
    • 27 focus groups (particular outreach to victim groups)
    • 5 public hearings (89 individuals testified)

The Sentencing Guidelines grid

A main emphasis in developing the guidelines was on simplicity. The guidelines are easy to understand and straightforward to apply. The lessons learned from the Federal guidelines were that they were too complex, too rigid, and too "mathematical." The grid format integrates intermediate sanctions, providing guidance to judges on appropriate use of such sanctions.

Vertical Axis     

  • Prescriptive approach used in classifying offenses according to seriousness
  • Values articulated and offenses classified accordingly
  • Comprehensive approach used — 1900 crimes ranked according to 9 levels of offense seriousness on the grid and compiled into master list of ranked crimes
  • Master Crime List is incorporated into the sentencing guidelines legislation

Horizontal Axis

  • Descriptive approach used in classifying criminal history
  • Criminal history categories describe nature of criminal record — e.g., serious violent record — rather than numerical score

Additional Resources

Sentencing guideline ranges

The guideline ranges were developed using a prescriptive approach whereby certain values were articulated, such as:

  • To promote public safety by providing just punishment for those who commit crime
  • To ensure that violent offenders face more certain and longer periods of incarceration
  • To integrate intermediate sanctions in the guidelines as a means of holding less serious offenders accountable in the community

Empirical data on current sentencing and the projected impact of the proposed guidelines on correctional populations informed the deliberations.

Mandatory minimum terms and sentences

When the Legislature codified the legislation that created the Sentencing Commission into the General Laws as Chapter 211E, it amended the original legislation in order to authorize the commission to establish guideline ranges that may go below the mandatory minimum sentence. Sentencing guidelines set limits and provide guidance for sentencing below mandatory minimum terms.

The Commission concluded that for certain mandatory offenses — e.g., OUI, firearms offenses — the mandatory minimum sentence was fair and proportionate. The Commission didn't reach the same conclusion upon its examination of mandatory drug offenses. By integrating drug crimes into the sentencing guidelines grid, the Commission sought to produce a comprehensive sentencing system that encourages more consistent proportional sentencing. Support for integrating mandatory drug crimes into the grid was expressed at focus groups, public hearings and testimony at legislative hearings. Current research on mandatory minimum drug sentencing supports alternatives to mandatory sentences.

Departure below mandatory minimum sentence requires written reasons. A judge isn't required to depart from the mandatory minimum term, and imposition of the mandatory minimum term would not be considered a departure even if the mandatory minimum term exceeds the guideline range. The Drug Offenders Grid shows how the mandatory drug offenses are integrated into the sentencing guidelines.

Additional Resources

Why has the Commission placed an emphasis on intermediate sanctions?

The Legislature specifically directed the commission to integrate intermediate sanctions into the sentencing guidelines system. This meant that the guidelines should not only indicate the appropriate sentencing range for those incarcerated, but should also provide guidance on the types of offenders who would be appropriate candidates for intermediate sanctions.

The Legislature also created the Office of Community Corrections (OCC) and provided the funds for the OCC to establish a statewide network of 22 community correction offenders who would be appropriate candidates for intermediate sanctions.

The annual cost of each level III and IV slot is approximately $4,000 as opposed to $36,000 for incarceration, and each slot can accommodate 4 offenders a year in in the course of a year. The sentencing guidelines are important in this context because they would provide a mechanism for identifying appropriate incarceration-bound offenders and steering them to community correctional centers where they would be held accountable without compromising public safety and with substantial cost savings to the state.



John Adams Courthouse
One Pemberton Square - G300
Boston, MA 02108
Last updated: April 25, 2018