Sentencing Issues and Trends in the U.S. Justice System

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  • 0:01 Prison Overcrowding
  • 2:12 Reducing Prison Populations
  • 5:01 Other Sentencing Trends
  • 7:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

Criminal sentencing trends over the last 30 years have resulted in a 500% increase in our nation's prison population. This lesson explores newer strategies that are designed to ease prison overcrowding while achieving public safety.

Prison Overcrowding

Did you know there are currently over two million people in our nation's prisons and jails? That's more than the population of Houston and almost the population of Chicago!

In fact, the United States has more people incarcerated than any other nation. Incarceration simply means serving a criminal sentence in jail or in prison. Over the past 30 years, we've experienced a 500% increase in our prison population. Much of this increase is due to 'get tough on crime' laws that were enacted throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

For example, about half the states had enacted three strikes statutes by the mid-1990s. These laws vary by state, but generally allow harsh, mandatory sentences for an offender's third felony conviction. Many states mandate automatic life sentences, which can sometimes result even when an offender's felony conviction is for a non-violent crime, such as stealing or drug possession.

Consider Timothy Tyler, who is often cited as a victim of our nation's 'war on drugs.' Tyler was 24 when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for selling LSD to a friend. This was Tyler's third felony conviction. He'd twice before been convicted of possessing LSD and had successfully completed three years of probation. Tyler hadn't previously served any prison time and had no prior convictions for violent crimes. Though Tyler admitted being addicted to LSD and having mental health difficulties, the judge was unable to consider those issues. The life sentence was a mandatory minimum, meaning the judge had no discretion in the sentencing decision.

Reducing Prison Populations

Incarceration is based on the sentencing goal of incapacitation. In other words, an offender can't commit crimes if the offender is removed from the community. Incarceration has traditionally been considered to be the most effective way to achieve public safety by simply removing the criminal element.

It's true that our nation's crime rates have generally decreased with the increase in the prison population. Crime rates peaked from the 1970s through the 1990s and have been on a steady decline since the 1990s. However, prison overcrowding results in an increasing financial burden for the state and federal governments. For that reason, many experts believe that we cannot continue to expand our prison system as a means to control our crime rate.

There are several newer sentencing options designed in a response to prison overcrowding. The options aim to shorten prison stays or avoid prison altogether for nonviolent offenders, like Timothy Tyler. Alternative sentences combine newer philosophies, like treatment and rehabilitation, with traditional sentencing options.

Let's take a look at a few of these innovative options:

  • Split sentence is a sentence of incarceration that is not served in a continuous period. For example, a defendant might be allowed to keep his or her job during the week and serve jail time on the weekends.

  • Shock probation is a sentence of brief incarceration followed by a period of probation. Typically used for first-time offenders, the incarceration experience is meant to 'shock' or 'scare' the defendant from participating in further criminal behavior.

  • Drug court is a court-supervised treatment program specifically designed for drug-addicted defendants. Drug court participants are closely supervised and must complete the program while displaying good behavior. If the defendant fails the program, he or she will be sent to the traditional court system for prosecution.

  • Boot camp is a sentence to a disciplinary or work camp that must be completed before being released to a term of probation. These boot camps typically last three to four months and are designed to be regimented and challenging.

  • Treatment programs are a requirement that the defendant complete a specific program designed to address the defendant's crime. These programs are also often used as a requirement of probation. Programs include in-house alcohol and drug centers, mental health facilities and job training classes.

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