The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was passed in response to congressional concern about fairness in federal sentencing practices. The Act completely changed the way courts sentenced federal offenders. The Act created a new federal agency, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to set sentencing guidelines for every federal offense. When federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in 1987, they significantly altered judges' sentencing discretion, probation officers' preparation of the presentence investigation report, and officers' overall role in the sentencing process. The new sentencing scheme also placed officers in a more adversarial environment in the courtroom, where attorneys might dispute facts, question guideline calculations, and object to the information in the presentence report. In addition to providing for a new sentencing process, the Act also replaced parole with "supervised release," a term of community supervision to be served by prisoners after they completed prison terms (Courts, 2015).
When the Federal Courts began using sentencing guidelines, about half of the states adopted the practice. Sentencing guidelines indicate to the sentencing judge a narrow range of expected punishments for specific offenses. The purpose of these guidelines is to limit judicial discretion in sentencing. Several sentencing guidelines use a grid system, where the severity of the offense runs down one axis, and the criminal history of the offender runs across the other. The more serious the offense, the longer the sentence the offender receives. The longer the criminal history of the offender, the longer the sentence imposed. Some systems allow judges to go outside of the guidelines when aggravating or mitigating circumstances exist.