Determinate Sentencing: Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

This lesson will define determinate sentencing in our criminal justice system, state pros and cons associated with its use, and provide a brief explanation of alternatives.

What is Determinate Sentencing?

If you've ever watched an episode of Law & Order, you've likely seen a scene in which a detective or a prosecutor, in speaking to a suspect of a crime, makes reference to a prison sentence as a matter of fact. As in, 'if you are convicted of this crime, you will be serving twenty-five years or more.' Or, 'if you are convicted of this murder, we'll be putting a needle in your arm,' referring to lethal injection as a result of a person having received the death penalty for a murder conviction.

Naturally, this is a fictional television drama, but did you ever wonder how they are able to say those things with such certainty? It is because there is a statute within that state that dictates a set minimum sentence that must be given for all persons convicted of a given crime.

This is an example of a determinate sentence. It means that if an offender is convicted of that particular crime, there is no possibility of getting a sentence that is less than the prescribed sentence by law. The judge cannot opt to give the offender a lesser sentence if she sees fit; nor can an offender be released early for good behavior.

Pros of Determinate Sentencing

People who advocate for consistent, equal sentences for equal crimes would contend that determinate sentencing is a good thing. This also ties back to historical notions of punishment by Cesare Beccaria, who argued that punishment should be certain, swift, and severe if it is to be an effective deterrent. Thus, everyone under the jurisdiction of this particular justice system knows that if they are convicted of a certain crime, that this is the set punishment for it. It doesn't matter who you are, what color you are, or who you know--this is the punishment for this crime. At its face value, determinate sentencing appears to be a consistent and fair application of the law.

For example, in some states, driving while intoxicated is a major issue. Thus, the sentencing associated with being charged with a DUI (Driving Under the Influence of alcohol) involves a driver's license suspension, mandatory classes, fines to reinstate the license once eligible, a breathalyzer device being installed into the vehicle registered to the individual (that is paid for by the individual), and potential jail or prison time. If a person gets multiple offenses, the fines increase, the likelihood of serving prison or jail time increases, and the length of time that the license is suspended for also increases.

The idea is that no one will want to be convicted of this crime and receive these sentences, which are a certainty for persons convicted of these crimes. Accordingly, these guaranteed harsh sentences would ideally deter people from driving while intoxicated.

Cons of Determinate Sentencing

As with any public policy, there are always unintended consequences. For persons convicted of a crime that has a determinate sentence proscribed to it, the judge has little, if any, discretion to consider mitigating circumstances, or circumstances that may lessen the culpability, or blameworthiness, of a defendant.

An example could be that of Joe, who is charged with aggravated assault for hitting someone in the head with a napkin dispenser at a bar. A mitigating circumstance might be that Joe just lost his job and will now likely lose his home because he can't make the mortgage payments. Normally, Joe would have been working at the time of the crime and wouldn't have been in a bar in the first place. Joe also has no prior convictions.

These are extreme stressors that would be mitigating circumstances in this crime. Had these circumstances not been present, Joe likely wouldn't have committed the crime. However, if there is a minimum sentence proscribed by law in that state for an aggravated assault conviction, these circumstances wouldn't matter. Joe will receive and serve at least the sentence that is the minimum for the aggravated assault conviction in that state.

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