Indeterminate Sentencing Laws

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 What Are Determinate Sentencing Laws?

Each state, as well as the federal legal system (for federal crimes), has its own rules for deciding on a sentence.

Not all judges have discretion in determining a criminal sentence. If a state has a law that describes a “determinate sentencing” system, a definite prison term, and the judge must follow it. Therefore, if a person is convicted of a crime in this jurisdiction, and the penalty for that crime is one year in prison, the convict will not be released until they have served the entire year. There is no such thing as “time off for good behavior.”

Under a determinate sentencing system, criminal sentences are not described by a range of time, such as 1-20 years. Instead, a determinate sentence has a fixed timeframe. The person is not sentenced to 1-20 years, but rather, they are sentenced to 15 years. They will serve all of 15 years, no matter their prison behavior. They will be unable to lower their sentences by behaving well in prison and cooperating with authorities.

Importantly, determinate sentencing states do not have parole. Parole is a method of shortening a convict’s sentence by letting them out early but requiring them to be supervised by a parole officer. Parole is an important way of relieving prison overcrowding – when there is no room to house additional prisoners, those who have behaved well are discharged to parole.

Because determinate sentencing does not allow judges nor prison officials to reduce a prisoner’s sentence, there is no reason to have a parole board. Many prison officials decry this system: the possibility of earning parole is an incentive for prisoners to behave well. Officials assert that prisoners will be more violent and less cooperative without that motivation.

What Are Indeterminate Sentencing Laws?

Unlike in a determinate sentencing state, In a jurisdiction that has indeterminate sentencing, a person who is convicted and given a one-year sentence may be released from prison in just six months.

Indeterminate sentencing is a system in which the judge is given flexibility in deciding what an individual’s sentence is. The sentencing statutes do not set forth one particular sentence for a crime, but rather, the sentence is given in the form of a range, with a minimum and maximum amount of time to be served.

For example, if a judge sentences the convicted individual to a term of 20 years to life, the individual would have to serve at least 20 years of a prison sentence, but may not have to serve a full life sentence. Depending on their behavior while in prison, the parole board can release the prisoner earlier.

Which States Have Indeterminate Sentencing?

From the early 1930s to the mid-70s, all 50 states had indeterminate sentencing. In the 1970s, Maine and California became the first states to reject that idea and to abolish parole for those currently incarcerated and probation for those who committed nonviolent crimes and could be given no prison time at all but rather be sentenced to probation (as well as certain other requirements, such as drug treatment, community service, and paying the victim of their crime for whatever damage they had caused.)

There are 13 states which currently have determinate sentencing. These are:

  1. Alaska
  2. Arizona
  3. California
  4. Colorado
  5. Illinois
  6. Indiana
  7. Maine
  8. Minnesota
  9. New Jersey
  10. New Mexico
  11. North Carolina
  12. Pennsylvania
  13. Tennessee

The remainder of the states, plus the District of Columbia, have indeterminate sentencing.

“Individualization” was the fundamental idea behind indeterminate sentencing. At every stage, officials wanted broad authority to tailor dispositions to the treatment needs of offenders and to the public safety risks they posed. Judges needed broad authority to set appropriate sentences tailored to the facts of each case; parole boards needed authority to set release dates and conditions; and prison managers needed authority to award and deny good time and grant furloughs.

Indeterminate sentencing structures are based on two widely held views. First, a restrictive interpretation of crime purportedly made a mockery of personal culpability. It was believed that no one who was raised in a slum, nor a person with mental health difficulties, should be held strictly liable for their actions. Second, basic fairness dictates that each offender be treated as an individual. Any other method was vengeful.

With Indeterminate Sentencing, Who Decides When I Am Released from Prison?

In a system with indeterminate sentencing, the power to grant early release from prison lies with the state’s parole board. Once a person has served the minimum sentence, the parole board will meet to review their case. If parole is not granted at the first meeting, the parole board will continue to meet and review the individual’s case periodically.

So, to use the earlier example, say a prisoner is serving 20 years to life. Once they have served 20 years, the parole board will meet to determine whether they should be released from prison based on the inmate’s behavior. If they do not parole the inmate at that time, then there will be further periodic meetings in the future to review the case again to see if there has been any improvement.

What are the Positive and Negative Attributes of Indeterminate Sentencing?

Indeterminate sentencing has valued properties, which is why it has survived so long and is the predominant mechanism in the United States. Advantages include:

  • Sentencing is seen as a human process. Indeterminate sentencing recognizes that rigid policies cannot take into account meaningful differences among cases.
  • Rehabilitation is an explicit goal. Humans are redeemable, and indeterminate sentencing allows maximum scope for efforts to provide services to prisoners and to give them programs (and reasons to take advantage of them) for self-improvement and advancement.
  • Public safety is a goal. Indeterminate sentencing allows judges and prison officials to consider public safety considerations. Decisions about parole release can take account of offenders’ risk profiles, and decisions about probation can be fine-tuned to the particular risks individual offenders present and the temptations they face.
  • Delegation of authority. Decision-making authority is in the hands of the judges and corrections officials in direct contact with the offender and their circumstances.
  • Professionalization. Indeterminate sentencing assumes that judges and corrections officials have specialized knowledge and experience that can be used to design the most effective punishments.

Disadvantages include:

  • Disparities. A principal criticism of indeterminate sentencing is that there are too often stark differences for people who have committed similar crimes. These disparities tend to arise from the personal outlook of the judges and parole officials.
  • Bias and stereotypes. Similarly, opponents assert that indeterminate sentencing too easily allows judges’ conscious and unconscious biases and stereotyping, including those based on race.
  • Inadequate implementation. Some critics argue that the corrections system rarely if ever carries through on its promises of vocational training, psychological services, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. During the height of indeterminate sentencing, many American prisons were squalid, brutal places.
  • Deserved punishments. The “deserved punishment” criticism holds that people should receive particular punishments and that anything else downplays the seriousness of the crime.

What are the Positive and Negative Attributes of Determinate Sentencing?

Strengths of determinate sentencing include:

  • It has reduced sentencing disparities and the possibility of gender, ethnic, geographical and racial bias,
  • Harsher sentences are awarded, which is in keeping with the public’s view that the law is currently too soft on crime and that the release of potentially dangerous prisoners endangers them before they have served all of their time.

Criticisms include:

  • Determinate sentencing diminishes judges’ and corrections officials’ roles. Those involved closely with the offenders, it is asserted, are in a better position to determine the best punishment for offenders than policymakers who are located far from prisons and most likely will never meet an offender.

Do I Need to Talk to an Attorney about Indeterminate Sentencing?

If you are facing criminal charges, you should contact a criminal attorney. The attorney will represent you at trial. They can also explain the sentencing system in the jurisdiction where you are being accused.


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