The Sentencing Process

by RyanD on December 4, 2013

The sentencing process in the United States may sound complicated, but it does follow an established formula. A criminal sentence follows the legal ramifications associated with a conviction in a court of law. Sentences range from probation and fines to incarceration and even death. Other sentences include payment to the victim, community service, rehab, and life in prison, with the severity of punishment depending a number of factors, including the state in which the criminal is tried and sentenced.

Purpose and Process

Sentencing as part of the criminal justice system serves two purposes: to deter future crime in both the criminal and others who may be thinking about committing a similar crime, and retribution, based on the belief that anyone who commits a crime should be punished and pay the price. The judge in charge of sentencing must impose the least severe punishment possible while considering both of the aforementioned aspects, as well as the protection of society as a whole.

Before the 1980s, federal courts followed a different sentencing system than they do today, which gave individual trial judges the freedom to levy sentences at their discretion. As you can imagine, this approach led to unfair rulings, where two criminals could get completely different sentences for committing the same crime. After 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act led to changes in the Sentencing Reform Act. This essentially ensures that the sentences imposed by judges accurately reflect the gravity of the crime in question, with punishment still achieving the goals of deterrence, public protection, and treatment, medical care, or education given to the criminal as part of rehabilitation.

While judges today do still have some control over individual sentencing, the guidelines they must follow are stricter than in previous decades. As part of the process, a pre-sentence investigation and report is necessary from the probation officer, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. Sentencing judges use the information they have obtained from the appropriate sources to determine a sentence, but this information isn’t restricted to what would be admissible in court. The judge must also take into consideration plea agreements and stipulations of fact. It’s the judge’s job to impose a sentence no harsher than necessary, while considering the nature of the conduct in question, offender characteristics, and statutory sentencing purposes.

History and Growing Rates

The number of incarcerations in the United States has grown over the last few decades. From 1930 to 1975, the incarceration rate was 106 inmates per 100,000 adults, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as outlined in a study put out by the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. By 1985, the rate had grown exponentially, to 202 per 100,000 adults, growing to 652 per 100,000 adults in 1997. The number of parolees and those on probation also grew significantly. The focus on different goals throughout history, including the aspects of retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation of the sentencing procedure, has changed over the last several decades, which has impacted incarceration rates. These rates also vary between individual states across the country.


This article was provided by Sandy Wallace, aspiring lawyer and self-professed tech geek.




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