Indeterminate Sentencing: Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes indeterminate sentencing. Review the definition of indeterminate sentencing and learn about the pros and cons of this type of sentencing.


What if you committed a crime and went to prison but didn't know when you would get out? Does that sound impossible? Well, it's not. It is a real concept known as indeterminate sentencing.

An indeterminate sentence occurs when the amount of years that a person will serve for committing a crime is uncertain. In other words, there is no specific time period that the offender will serve. Usually, the statute for a crime does not indicate the particular amount of years someone should be sentenced and instead provides a range of time. For instance, a statute may state that the sentence for murder is a term of fifteen years to life. Therefore, the judge will impose a sentence that falls within that range, but has no definite end date.

The actual release date of the offender is determined by a parole board. A parole board is a group of individuals who review the offender's record while he or she is imprisoned in order to determine whether the offender is eligible for release. The parole board will look at such factors as the inmate's behavior, rehabilitation efforts, work efforts and more. If the parole board determines that the offender is eligible, the offender may be released.

Indeterminate sentences are typically utilized for felony offenses. Felony offenses are crimes which carry sentences of one year and more. These crimes are very serious and include such crimes as murder, rape and kidnapping.


Proponents of indeterminate sentencing argue that the use of this type of sentencing encourages prisoners to take advantage of the benefits offered by imprisonment, such as rehabilitation, in order to achieve an earlier release date. Moreover, proponents argue that prisoners will have an incentive to conform to prison rules in order to achieve an early release date.

Furthermore, proponents contend that the parole board's decision to grant release of a prisoner considers not only good behavior in prison, but also the prisoner's history and other facts and circumstances. In other words, the determination is a well-reasoned and carefully crafted one.

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