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Indeterminate Criminal Sentencing: Definition, Purpose & Advantages

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  • 0:01 Sentencing
  • 1:34 Determinate vs. Indeterminate
  • 2:35 Indeterminate Sentencing
  • 3:40 Parole Variables
  • 4:56 Purpose of…
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

In the United States, most states use indeterminate sentencing. This means that judges sentence offenders to terms of imprisonment identified only as a range, rather than a specific time period. This lesson explains indeterminate sentencing.

Sentencing

There are over two million people in our nation's prisons and jails. That's around the same population as Houston, Texas. There are another four million people on probation in the United States. That's more than the city of Los Angeles! Can you imagine all of those people moving through our nation's criminal justice system? How did they eventually end up serving these criminal sentences?

There are several different phases in the criminal justice process. Even after an offender pleads guilty to a crime or is found guilty by a jury, the process isn't over. The convicted offender then faces sentencing. During this phase, the offender is brought before the court so that the offender's penalty can be ordered. When the judge orders a penalty, or punishment, it's known as the offender's sentence. As you can see, most sentences include some form of probation or incarceration.

Though most sentencing decisions are left to the judge, the judge isn't without guidance. The same law that sets out a particular crime usually also sets out the sentence for that crime. For example, the state law that tells us what constitutes burglary will also tell us that burglary carries a penalty of one to five years in state prison.

Determinate v. Indeterminate

A handful of states use determinate sentencing. This means the judge sentences the offender to a specific time period. The judge doesn't have any discretion when sentencing the offender since the law dictates the precise sentence. For example, rather than identifying a range of one to five years, the law might say burglary carries an automatic prison term of three years. Think of 'determinate' as simply 'the sentence is determined.'

However, most states use indeterminate sentencing. This is when the offender's sentence is identified as a range, rather than a specific time period. In other words, the offender is actually sentenced to one to five years. Think of 'indeterminate' as simply 'the sentence is not determined.'

Let's take a closer look at indeterminate sentencing.

Indeterminate Sentencing

Remember that, in most states, the judge has wide discretion when deciding and imposing a sentence, which will be identified as a range. Let's say our convicted offender receives an indeterminate sentence of one to five years. She knows she'll serve a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years. The amount of time the offender actually serves will depend on several different variables.

While in prison, the state parole board will hold hearings to determine when, during the range, the offender should be released. The parole board is a small panel of people who decide when an offender should be released on parole. The governor usually appoints the board.

Typically, the offender must first serve a minimum amount of her sentence before the parole board will meet regarding the case. Most states require at least half of the sentence to be served.

Parole Variables

Parole means that the offender is allowed to serve the rest of her sentence under community supervision. The offender is released from prison to be a part of the community, but not without some restrictions. At a minimum, the offender will be required to check in regularly with her parole officer. Any violation, like an arrest for a new crime or a failure to find and keep a job, can result in her being sent back to prison.

When deciding whether or not to grant parole, the board considers these variables:

  • The original recommendation of the judge
  • The length of time the offender has served
  • Any aggravating or mitigating factors relating to the crime
  • The offender's criminal history
  • The opinions of the victim or the victim's family
  • The offender's participation in rehabilitation programs
  • The offender's risk to public safety
  • The offender's behavior while in prison
  • The offender's willingness to comply with conditions of parole
  • Prison overcrowding

Purpose of Indeterminate Sentencing

Indeterminate sentencing is meant to alleviate unnecessary prison time. It's based on the principle that an offender should be released from prison when she no longer poses a threat to the community.

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