Structured Criminal Sentencing: Definition, Types & Models

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  • 0:02 Criminal Sentencing
  • 2:27 Structured Sentencing Types
  • 5:14 How it Works
  • 7:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

Structured criminal sentencing is a method of determining an offender's sentence. It classifies offenders using different factors, then imposes a sentence as specified by law. This lesson explains structured criminal sentencing.

Criminal Sentencing

This is Scott:

image of a person

Scott got in a physical fight with his roommate and, unfortunately, hurt him pretty badly. Scott ended up getting arrested and charged with assault. He's just pled guilty to the crime.

Scott may be wondering what happens next. The next step in the criminal justice process is known as sentencing. During sentencing, a convicted offender is brought before the court so that the offender's penalty can be ordered. The offender will be given a penalty, or punishment. This punishment is known as the offender's sentence.

The offender's sentence is almost always ordered by the judge, even when a jury decided the case. But how does the judge decide? It's helpful to note that the same law that sets out a particular crime usually also sets out the sentencing range for that crime. In Scott's state, his assault charge carries a punishment of one to five years in prison. The judge will start by using that information.

In most states, the judge has wide discretion when deciding and imposing a sentence, which will be identified as a range rather than a specific time period. This is known as indeterminate sentencing. In other words, Scott can be sentenced to a term of imprisonment that reflects the range of one to five years; he's not given a specific amount of time. He knows he'll serve a minimum of one year. After that, the amount of time Scott actually serves will depend on different variables, such as prison overcrowding and the eventual decision of Scott's parole board. Scott won't know how long his sentence is until he's released, though he knows it won't be longer than five years.

However, a handful of states and the federal government use structured sentencing instead. This means the judge sentences the offender to a specific time period, as dictated by law. In other words, Scott is given a precise sentence, like three years.

Let's take a closer look at structured sentencing.

Types of Structured Sentencing

There are actually three different models, or types, of structured sentencing. For the states that use structured sentencing, they use one of these three models to determine an offender's sentence. The models are only slightly different from one another.

The first model is known as determinate sentencing. This is a model in which the offender is sentenced to a mandatory, fixed term of incarceration. This is the most basic type of structured sentencing. It simply means the offender is automatically given a fixed, or determined, sentence. He isn't sentenced to a range, and there's no discretion in the decision.

This type of sentencing is often used to dictate specific sentences for certain crimes or for repeat offenders. For example, 'three strikes' laws that mandate a life sentence for a third felony conviction are an example of determinate sentencing.

Using determinate sentencing, if Scott is given a three year sentence, then he'll spend no more than three years in prison. In some situations, it may still be possible for Scott to serve less than three years due to time off for good behavior.

The second model is known as voluntary or advisory sentencing. This is a structured sentencing model in which crimes are classified according to their seriousness, and a range of time to be served is suggested for each crime. Many state sentencing guidelines use this model. Notice that the judge has more discretion in this model. The judge is guided, or advised, to select anything within the range. However, the sentencing guidelines aren't mandatory, meaning the judge isn't required to pick something within the suggested range.

The third model is presumptive sentencing. This is a structured sentencing model that uses particular sentencing procedures, but allows some reasonable discretion to the judge. This model is a hybrid, or combination, of the other models. It attempts to balance sentencing guidelines with mandatory sentencing.

Like the voluntary guidelines, crimes are classified according to their seriousness, and a range of time to be served is defined for each crime. However, the judge is expected to follow the sentencing procedures and pick something reasonable within the range. If the judge chooses not to, the judge must fully document a valid reason for not doing so.

How Structured Sentencing Works

No matter the model, structured sentencing uses several factors to provide judges with the appropriate sentence. You can think of it like an equation; the factors are added together to reach a definite sum. The sum result is the offender's sentence.

The factors to be considered include:

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