Determinate sentencing occurs when a judge must sentence a convicted offender to a standard sentence that is dictated by the law. This most often comes with drug convictions, but there are other examples that are on the books, such as the three strikes laws that require a life sentence on someone’s third specific felony conviction. There are some pros and cons of determinate sentencing that may start to change your mind about this practice. Let’s see what there are.
The Pros of Determinate Sentencing
Determinate sentencing takes any question of bias out of the sentencing portion of a trial. There is no question about whether a judge likes someone or not. The standard sentence is handed down, no matter who that person is, what race they are, or what religion they follow.
Because there are no variables that change the sentencing guidelines of these convictions, someone going to trial will know immediately what their outcome will be if they are found guilty or plead guilty. This eliminates the anxiety between the conviction and sentencing phases of a trial and lets the court proceed in a quicker manner.
It also means that someone can weigh the consequences of their actions before they are taken. By knowing that a drug offense may carry a standard 10 year sentence if found guilty, it can persuade people who are sitting on the fence about a choice to decide to follow the law instead of break it. In theory, the harsher the determinate sentencing happens to be, then the more likely someone is going to choose to follow the law so they don’t have to deal with legal consequences.
The Cons of Determinate Sentencing
The main issue with determinate sentencing is that there are no options available. Someone can make a legitimate mistake, not realize that something is against the law, and receive a long sentence because of it. Although high level, serious offenders were targeted with these sentencing guidelines, first-time offenders and unintentional law breakers get caught up in the snare and everyone receives the same sentence.
This also means that there are more people in prison. The US prison population, per capita, is one of the highest in the world. The State of California has even been ordered by the Supreme Court to reduce their state prison population. Convicted offenders are staying behind bars for longer and aren’t eligible for parole at all or not until 85% of their sentence has been served.
Determinate sentencing also has a cost. In California, it costs over $70k to house a prisoner for one year, but the average income for a California household is less than $60k. Tens of millions of dollars could be freed up if individualized sentencing across all crime would be instituted.
The problem with individualized sentencing is that bias can affect the process. The problem with determinate sentences is that it makes everyone equal, no matter the circumstances. Finding the right balance is not always a perfect, pleasant process, but it is essential to maintain the safety of society.