How Do I Understand Sentencing Systems?

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Dear Resilient Course Visitor:

Understanding sentencing systems is not easy—especially for someone that has never confronted a problem with the criminal justice system before. There are many different types of systems, in many different jurisdictions. 

The more you know about sentencing, the more you can prepare to influence the process. Some sentencing systems have indeterminate sentencing laws. Others have determinate sentencing laws. This article will provide some insight into both. 

If you want more details on sentencing systems and preparations, sign up for a free trial of our Reframe Course. If you’re facing a sentencing hearing, the more you know, the better you can prepare. 

Below I will describe indeterminate sentencing systems, and determinate sentencing systems. Although they differ, we can learn from each system. We can grab information from each to strengthen our argument for the best possible outcome. 


Indeterminate Sentencing Systems

In an indeterminate sentencing system, each criminal statute provides a range of sanctions, with minimum and maximum terms. For example, a crime’s potential sentence can span from probation to 20 years in prison. In such a case, the judge may sentence an offender to 10 years. 

With an indeterminate sentencing system, a 10-year term doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual will serve 10 years in prison. The indeterminate sentencing system has mechanisms in place to assess the offender at various stages. The law may or may not require an offender to serve a minimum portion of that term in prison. It would allow the offender to serve the remainder of time under community supervision, or some type of alternative sanction. 

A parole board usually has the power to assess an offender. If the members of the parole board agree that person can function in society, the parole board may release him. The governor or president appoints people to serve on the parole board. 

In most cases, parole board members will have experience with law enforcement. They may have had previous careers as prosecutors, police officers, or in corrections before they became members of the parole board. Some members of parole boards may have advanced academic degrees. Others may have more experience than academic credentials.

In an indeterminate sentencing system, members of the parole board determine how long the offender should remain in prison. A parole decision may require a quorum or majority decision that results in conditional release. While on conditional release, offenders will have a “release plan.” A probation officer will check in with offenders to ensure compliance with the conditions of parole. If an offender violates those conditions, the probation officer may initiate proceedings to revoke parole. Revocation of parole may result in a judge returning the offender to prison. 


Determinate Sentencing Systems:

Determinate sentencing systems offer fewer opportunities for an offender to influence an earlier release date. That doesn’t mean the offender doesn’t have any opportunities to influence release dates. 

Lawmakers introduced “determinate sentencing” to bring more consistency to the sentencing process. The federal system is an example of a determinate sentencing jurisdiction. It supposed to avoid disparity in sentencing that exists in many indeterminate sentencing systems.

In jurisdictions with indeterminate sentencing, offenders who were convicted of the same type of crime may serve vastly different sentences. A judge may sentence one offender to probation and another offender to 20 years for the same type of crime. Or a parole board may release one offender after a year. That same parole board may require a different offender to serve ten years, even though both offenders were convicted of the same type of crime. Valid reasons may exist for decisions in each case. 

Determinate sentencing systems, like the federal system, lessen the likelihood for big discrepancies between jurisdictions. 

In determinate sentencing systems, judges rely upon “guidelines” or “principles” to influence their sentencing decisions. In the federal sentencing system, The United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines offers sentencing ranges for each crime. The guidelines are the product of the United States Sentencing Commission.  The guidelines rely upon two factors to determine appropriate sentencing ranges for each crime:

1) the guidelines take the offense into consideration;

2) the guidelines take the defendant’s criminal history into consideration.

A Sentencing Table, which is a grid, puts these factors into perspective. Level 1 through 43 on a vertical scale of the grid determines the offense level.  Level 1 through 6 on the horizontal scale determines the criminal-history category. The intersection of each cell on the grid recommends a sentence within a relatively narrow range. As offense levels rise, the Sentencing Table offers a wider range. For example, a Level-18 offense, with a Criminal History Category of II, recommends a sentencing range of 30 to 37 months in prison (seven-month range). A Level 33, with a Criminal History Category of III, recommends a sentencing range of between 168 and 210 months (a 42-month range). 

To help the judge determine the appropriate score on the Sentencing Table, a Probation Officer conducts a presentence investigation report (PSR). By investigating the prosecutor’s version of events, the defendant’s version of events, and the defendant’s background, the probation officer can make an assessment. The probation officer recommends the appropriate score on the Sentencing Table for each defendant.

In the federal sentencing system, guidelines are “advisory” for judges rather than “mandatory.” Yet the guidelines provide a basis for judges that want more consistency in sentencing in various jurisdictions. Determinate sentencing systems were an attempt to bring more “truth in sentencing.” They do not offer mechanisms like parole boards to reassess whether continued incarceration is warranted.

Many determinate sentencing systems allow the system of corrections to reduce an offenders’ term through “good time” credits. Offenders do not have to do anything particularly good to receive the good time credits. They simply have to avoid being convicted of any disciplinary infractions in prison that could result in the loss of good time. If an offender doesn’t violate any prison rules, prison administrators reduce the term by 15 percent. Such good time credits are available in indeterminate sentencing systems, too. 

Determinate sentencing systems may authorize programs in prisons that qualify successful participants for a sentence reduction. For example, if they qualify, federal offenders may participate in a program that results in a 12-month time cut. First, they must qualify for the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). If they qualify for RDAP, and if they complete the program successfully, they may receive the time reduction. Other determinate sentencing systems may have similar programs that authorize prison authorities to reduce a term administratively. 

In my next article, I’ll describe steps defendants may take for the best possible outcome. Whether they’ve been convicted in a jurisdiction with indeterminate sentencing, or determinate sentencing, they should prepare early for a successful journey.

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