Determinate Sentencing Laws

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 What Is a Determinate Sentence?

A determinate sentence is a type of criminal sentence that represents a fixed period of time. The judge will set a specific term of imprisonment in the case of a conviction, which is not subject to review by a parole board or other agency. In contrast to an indeterminate sentence, which sets a range of time (e.g., 10 to 20 years), a determinate sentence is fixed (e.g., 15 years).

As an example of determinate sentencing, a person convicted of a particular criminal charge, such as robbery, may receive a determinate sentence of five years. This means the person is required to serve exactly five years, barring any sentence reductions for good behavior or other factors.

Which States Have Determinate Sentencing Laws?

Many states in the U.S. have determinate sentencing laws, but the specifics can vary widely from state to state. Some states use a combination of determinate and indeterminate sentencing.

There are 13 states that have adopted determinate sentencing laws. They are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. California has adopted a hybrid system that combines determinate and indeterminate sentences for different types of offenses.

It’s important to note that federal law uses a version of determinate sentencing through the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, although judges are given a degree of discretion.

Do I Have to Complete the Entire Sentence?

Generally, under a determinate sentence, the defendant will serve the exact length of time that the judge orders. However, the actual time served may be less than the sentence length due to credits for good behavior, also known as “good time” credits. Additionally, determinate sentences can sometimes be reduced through sentence modification or commutation.

Let’s dive into some examples.

Good Behavior Credits

Imagine a defendant receives a determinate sentence of 10 years. The jurisdiction where they are incarcerated allows inmates to earn “good time” credits, reducing their sentence length for good behavior and participation in certain programs. If the defendant consistently exhibits good behavior and earns these credits, they could potentially be released before the 10 years are up.

Sentence Modification

In another scenario, a defendant might be serving a determinate sentence of 15 years. Suppose new evidence comes to light that might have altered the original sentence. The defendant’s attorney could petition the court for a sentence modification, potentially reducing the sentence length.


Consider a defendant who receives a 20-year determinate sentence. If the governor or president (depending on whether it’s a state or federal case) decides that the sentence was overly harsh, they have the power to commute, or reduce, the sentence.

For example, if a defendant was given a 20-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense, a governor committed to criminal justice reform might decide to commute the sentence to 10 years.

Parole Eligibility

In some jurisdictions, inmates serving determinate sentences may become eligible for parole before their sentence ends. For instance, a person with a 10-year determinate sentence might become eligible for parole after serving half of the sentence, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction.

Educational Programs

Some prisons offer sentence reduction in exchange for participation in educational or vocational programs. For example, an inmate serving a 10-year determinate sentence might have their sentence reduced by a year if they obtain a GED or complete a certain number of vocational training hours.

Early Release for Overcrowding

In some extreme cases, jurisdictions dealing with severe prison overcrowding might release inmates serving determinate sentences early. For instance, an inmate with a 5-year sentence might be released after 3 years if the prison needs to free up space.

Is Determinate the Same as a Consecutive Sentence?

No, determinate sentencing and consecutive sentencing are not the same thing. Determinate refers to the length of a sentence being definite and not subject to review by a parole board. Consecutive sentencing refers to the way multiple sentences are served when a defendant has been convicted of more than one crime. If sentences are served consecutively, it means one sentence begins immediately after the other ends. This is in contrast to concurrent sentencing, where all sentences are served at the same time.

Let’s consider examples that illustrate the difference,

Determinate Sentence

John is convicted of burglary. The judge, following state guidelines, sentences John to a determinate sentence of 5 years. This means John will serve exactly 5 years, subject to any reductions like “good time” credits. There’s no parole review here; the length of the sentence is definite from the start.

Consecutive Sentence

Now let’s consider a situation where John is convicted of two crimes: burglary and assault. For each crime, he is given a determinate sentence of 5 years. The judge orders these sentences to be served consecutively. This means John will first serve the 5-year sentence for burglary. Only after completing this sentence will he begin serving the 5-year sentence for assault. In total, John will serve 10 years under the consecutive sentences.

By contrast, if the judge had ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, John would serve both 5-year sentences at the same time, meaning he would be out in 5 years total.

Work Release Programs

In some states, prisoners serving determinate sentences can participate in work release programs. These programs allow prisoners to work at an off-site location during the day and return to the prison at night.

Not only does this provide the prisoner with valuable job training, but it can also lead to a reduction in their sentence. For instance, a prisoner serving a 7-year sentence may have their sentence reduced by a day for every day they participate in the program. Over time, this can significantly shorten their time behind bars.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Many prisons offer sentence reductions to prisoners who successfully complete substance abuse treatment programs. For instance, a prisoner serving a 10-year determinate sentence for a drug-related crime might have their sentence reduced by a year or more upon completion of an approved treatment program. This not only provides an incentive for prisoners to address their substance abuse issues but also reduces the overall prison population.

Restorative Justice Programs

Some jurisdictions offer restorative justice programs, which allow victims and offenders to come together in a controlled, supportive environment to discuss the crime and its impact. If a prisoner serving a determinate sentence participates in such a program and meets certain criteria, they may be eligible for a sentence reduction. For instance, a prisoner serving a 15-year sentence for burglary may have their sentence reduced by two years upon successful completion of a restorative justice program.

Elderly and Medical Release

Some jurisdictions provide early release options for elderly or seriously ill prisoners. For instance, a prisoner serving a 20-year determinate sentence may be released after serving half of their sentence if they are over a certain age or suffering from a severe, debilitating illness. This not only helps address the issue of prison overcrowding, but also the ethical concerns of keeping elderly or seriously ill individuals behind bars.

Presidential or Gubernatorial Pardons

In some rare cases, a prisoner serving a determinate sentence might have their sentence commuted or even be granted a full pardon by the President (in federal cases) or Governor (in state cases). For example, a prisoner serving a 25-year sentence for a non-violent offense could have their sentence commuted to time served if the executive believes that the original sentence was too harsh.

Again, these examples are simplistic. Actual sentencing can be influenced by a multitude of factors and can be more complex.

Should I Talk with an Attorney about Determinate Sentencing?

Absolutely. If you’re facing criminal charges, it’s crucial to have a skilled attorney on your side who understands the complexities of the criminal justice system, including determinate sentencing.

An experienced criminal lawyer can explain the potential sentences you may be facing and can work to present the best possible defense on your behalf. LegalMatch can help you find the right attorney for your case – begin your search on LegalMatch today.


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