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Determinate Penalty Systems in America - An Overview

NCJ Number
Crime and Delinquency Volume: 27 Issue: 3 Dated: (July 1981) Pages: 289-316
Date Published
27 pages
The various approaches to determinate sentencing used in the United States are described and assessed.
Where wide discretion in sentencing was once the rule, State after State has recently established standards or guidelines governing sentencing decisions. Determinate penalty schemes have taken a variety of forms, some exercising moderation in the use of imprisonment and some providing severe penalties. The central feature of these reforms is the establishment of express standards on how much punishment should be imposed under normal circumstances on persons convicted of various types of criminal conduct. A variety of rationales appear to underlie the current approaches. For example, New Mexico's legilsatively prescribed sentencing code is explicitly intended to incapacitate offenders. In contrast, Minnesota sentencing guidelines, which were developed by the State's sentencing commission, reflect a desert rationale with certain modifications. The scope of the standards also varies. Most relate only to the duration of imprisonment, while others also regulate the choice of whether or not to imprison. Great variety also exists with regard to sentence severity. Some jurisdictions, such as Indiana and New Mexico, have sharply increased prescribed terms, while others, such as Illinois and Oregon, have avoided increases in punishment. Despite these variations, standards exhibit certain common characteristics in terms of whether they were developed by the legislature, a sentencing commission, or the parole board. An empirical question which has yet to be resolved is how prosecutorial decisions will affect determinate penalty systems. It is concluded that the early efforts at establishing determinate sentencing systems, which were hastily enacted by State legislatures, were accomplished with too much enthusiasm and not enough care. The later efforts of sentencing commissions and parole boards represent more sophisticated approaches. These second-generation efforts should be the focus of further study and assessment. Footnotes are provided.

Date Published: January 1, 1981