Robert Munoz Jr
25 January 2015
Rapid Changes in Sentencing Structures
Judges in the United States used indeterminate sentencing for nearly 45 years. This type of sentencing has a set limit of incarceration that a convict may serve for the crime committed. If the judge gives an offender two to five years imprisonment, then that offender will serve a minimum of two years but will serve no more than five years. This system was put into place to make the offender in their release with good behavior in prison.
With this in effect it gave offenders to rehabilitate in prison. With good behavior in prison it could release them sooner rather than later (depending on the procedure’s of the parole board). The parole board would review their case and determine if the inmate has “changed” while being incarcerated, and would then be released serving the remainder of their sentence on probation.
In the mid 1970’s, indeterminate sentencing began to meet its final days. Indeterminate sentencing received much criticism, expressing that it was “inequitable and ineffective and both too harsh and too lenient,” but that it was also “impossible to determine a ‘correct’ or ‘fair’ sentence for a type of crime” (Overview of Sentencing Reforms and Practices, 2000). The first states to discard the main points on indeterminate sentencing and to have the belief that parole should be accessible to nearly all those incarcerated were California and Maine (Tonry, 1999). The causes of these changes spanned from the prisoners themselves, all the way to the political arena.
Prisoners showed just how irate prisoners were with not only the concept of rehabilitation, but also with their living conditions. These issues were brought to the foreground by many prison riots, most notably at Attica. On September 13, 1971, prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York waged a riot that has been deemed ‘the bloodiest prison confrontation in American history’ (Attica Revisited, 2006). Roughly 1,300 prisoners took part, taking 40 guards hostage, with demands of improved living conditions, and more educational opportunities and job training skills. In the end, negotiations failed, police took back the prison, but not without 43 deaths, 10 of which were that of the guards held hostage.
Prisoners were not happy with the rights that they had when it came to sentencing as well. Many believed that ‘broad discretion produced arbitrary and capricious decisions and that racial and other invidious biases influenced officials’ (Tonry, 1999). Considering that many of those involved in the sentencing and releasing of prisoners are not subject to review, Tonry has a valid point. There is no set standard for indeterminate sentencing, so judges had fairly free reign as to sentences. And it seemed to some, that criminals of different races and classes were often given vastly different sentences for committing the same crime, otherwise known as sentencing disparity.
Even though incarceration should be about rehabilitating prisoners and releasing them back into society as productive members, unfortunately it has become about politics. Those running for office always want to appear to be tough on crime, and indeterminate sentencing appears to some to be too soft. Allowing prisoners to earn their freedom before they have served their maximum sentence is not punishment in the eyes of those that believe prisoners should be locked up and made to do hard time. The idea of rehabilitation itself was also challenged. Between 1970-2000, parole rates were deteriorating. According to the American Criminal Law Review, fifteen states had done away with parole and twenty states had severe restrictions in place by 2000 (O'Hear, 2011). Those offenders, who continued to commit crimes, even after being granted parole time and time again, undermined the rationale that parole was part of rehabilitation. As...
References: Allen, H. E., Latessa, E. J., & Ponder, B. S. (2013). Corrections in America. Boston: Pearson, Inc.
Attica Revisited. (2006). Retrieved from Talking History: http://www.talkinghistory.org/attica/
O 'Hear, M. (2011). Beyond Rehabilitation: A New Theory of Indeterminate Sentencing. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis: https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=48+Am.+Crim.+L.+Rev.+1247&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=f327de58bd6ca8f479356f7658da7248
Overview of Sentencing Reforms and Practices. (2000, June 19). Retrieved from Connecticut General Assembly Office of Program Review and Investigations: http://www.cga.ct.gov/pri/archives/2000fireportchap1.htm
Tonry, M. (1999, September). Reconsidering Indeterminate and Structured Sentencing. Retrieved from National Criminal Justice Reference Service: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/175722.pdf
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