Do Michigan’s Sentencing Guidelines Meet the Legislature’s Goals?

A Historical and Empirical Analysis of Prison Terms for Life-Maximum Offenses

by Barbara Levine, J.D., Anne Mahar, Ph.D., and Justin Smith, Ph.D.


Among the key goals of Michigan’s sentencing guidelines are ensuring that: 1) sentences are proportional to the offense and the offender and 2) similar defendants who committed similar offenses receive substantially similar sentences. Other goals include accounting for state and local correctional resources.  This research project focuses on how these goals are met in the sentencing of the “life or any term offenses” of second-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and armed robbery.  These are the cases where judges have the most discretion, the guidelines ranges are broadest, and the stakes are highest for defendants, victims, local communities and state taxpayers.

The dataset included nearly 39,000 sentences imposed from 1984-2012.  To keep the results as accurate as possible, habitual offender sentences were kept separate from non-habitual sentences and each analysis was broken down by offense type.

Among the subjects examined were:

  • The growth in sentence length from the judicial to the legislative guidelines,
  • The frequency and extent to which judges departed from the recommendations of the legislative guidelines,
  • Disparities in sentence length by:
    • county,
    • conviction method,
    • age, sex and race,
    • and, to a limited extent, by sentencing judge,
  • Use of the habitual offender statutes,
  • The evolution of the guidelines and the lack of a sentencing commission,
  • How Michigan’s guidelines compare with those of other guidelines jurisdictions,
  • The effect of changing the guidelines from mandatory to advisory.

The report concludes with recommendations for change.

Download>> Do Michigan’s Sentencing Guidelines Meet The Legislature’s Goals?

Review the report’s supplemental tables below.

Download>> Supplemental Counties Tables

Download>> Supplemental Full and Offense