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Sentencing - Truth-in-sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentences And Time Served, Three Strikes, You're Out

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Sentencing reform policies have paralleled the mood of the country on crime and punishment, shifting between requiring a fixed prison time prior to release or allowing discretionary release of offenders by judges, parole boards, or corrections officials. Over the last two decades, sentencing requirements and release policies have become more restrictive, primarily in response to widespread "get tough on crime" attitudes in the Nation.

—Paula M. Ditton and Doris James Wilson, Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 1999)

Sentencing policies have changed since the 1970s. Prison populations began increasing in 1973 from a rate of ninety-six prisoners per 100,000 adult residents in the United States to an estimated 482 per 100,000 in 2003. (See Table 4.3 in Chapter 4.) Between 1925 and 1973 the ninety-six per 100,000 rate was one of the lowest, matched, for instance, by the rate in 1928. The average imprisonment rate during the 1925–73 period was 107 prisoners per 100,000 people. The highest rate in this time period was reached in 1939 when 137 people were incarcerated in state and federal prisons per 100,000 residents. The average in the period 1974–2003 was 279.

The period of expanding incarceration also coincided with emphasis at state and federal levels on controlling the use and distribution of drugs. The first legislation against drugs was the Harrison Act, enacted in 1914, which outlawed opiates and cocaine. Marijuana was outlawed in 1937. The "war on drugs" was declared in the early 1970s when the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) published its recommendation that marijuana be legalized (Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, March 1972). The commission was appointed by President Richard Nixon, who later rejected the commission's recommendation and declared war on drugs.

As reported in Key Facts at a Glance on the Web page of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) ("Number of Persons in Custody of State Correctional Authorities by Most Serious Offense, 1980–2001," http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/corrtyptab.htm), prisoners in state systems incarcerated for drug offenses comprised 6.5% of the prison population in 1980. By 2001 they represented 20.4% of prisoners. Drug prosecutions also have made up a growing proportion of the federal criminal caseload. In 1982, 21% of federal defendants were held on drug charges, while 35% were drug related in 2002. In addition to a sharp growth in drug crimes, crimes of violence also spiked. From 1995 to 2001, half of the increase in the state prison population was due to an increase in the prisoners convicted of violent offenses.

It is against this background that new sentencing policies developed. Paula M. Ditton and Doris James Wilson (Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons) summarize the situation beginning with the 1970s as follows:

In the early 1970s, states generally permitted parole boards to determine when an offender would be released from prison. In addition, good-time reductions for satisfactory prison behavior, earned-time incentives for participation in work or educational programs, and other time reductions to control prison crowding resulted in the early release of prisoners. These policies permitted officials to individualize the amount of punishment or leniency an offender received and provided means to manage the prison population.

Such discretion in sentencing and release policies led to criticism that some offenders were punished more harshly than others for similar offenses and to complaints that overall sentencing and release laws were too soft on criminals. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, States began developing sentencing guidelines, enacting mandatory minimum sentences and adopting other sentencing reforms to reduce disparity in sentencing and to toughen penalties for certain offenses, specifically drug offenses (as part of the "war on drugs"), offenses with weapons, and offenses committed by repeat or habitual criminals.

Sentencing and Corrections - Sentencing And Time Served, The Death Penalty, Corrections In The United States, Jail Inmates [next] [back] Resources

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