An Analysis of Indeterminate Sentencing: Part I of III

As this is a lengthy discussion, I have broken it down into three parts and will be posting parts II and III in the coming days so please stay posted!

An Analysis of Indeterminate Sentencing: Part I

State legislatures are considering adopting the exclusive use of indeterminate sentencing for all juvenile offenders.  To ensure a fully informed decision, they have asked for an analysis report that covers the following issues: 1) Pros and cons of indeterminate sentencing and its appropriateness for different types of juvenile offenders; 2) interventions used with indeterminate sentences; 3) impact of waiver on indeterminate sentencing; 4) impact of indeterminate sentencing on recidivism; 5) possibility that juveniles serve their sentences in split jurisdiction; and 6) utility of diversion programs.

I will address the facts involving each of these issues and then offer an opinion to the state legislatures on whether adopting the exclusive use of indeterminate sentencing for all juvenile offenders would be a positive or negative move for the juvenile justice system.

Pros and Cons

“Under a determinant sentencing system, the offender serves a specific legislatively prescribed sentence for a specific crime.  Judges have only limited discretion to vary the sentence . . . the parole board function of evaluating prisoners for release is abolished . . . With indeterminate sentencing . . . judges have broad discretionary powers when sentencing . . . the parole board has wide latitude in determining whether an offender will be released early or made to serve his full sentence.” (French, 1977).

Indeterminate sentencing for juveniles supports the rehabilitation and specific deterrence models of sentencing while determinate sentencing supports the general deterrence and just desserts models of sentencing (Wikipedia, 2009).

Indeterminate Sentencing

Cons: (French, 1977)

  • disparity of sentences given for similar crimes
  • disparity within sentences handed out by the same judge
  • disparity between rural and urban judges
  • disparity in the initial decision on whether an offender goes on probation or goes to prison
  • uncertainty of release from prison under the parole board system
  • lessened deterrent effect of prison terms because of the uncertainty of how much time will actually be served for a particular crime
  • difficulty parole boards have in accurately predicting when a person is rehabilitated
  • difficulty in planning for future prison populations because of the uncertainty in prison terms
  • what inmates perceive as the unfairness and arbitrariness of the sentencing system leading to inmate anger and unrest, disrupting the rehabilitative function

Pros: (Utah Sentencing Commission, 2006)

  • individualizing sentencing and release decisions
  • empowers judges and the Board of Pardons and Parole to make sure that an offender who continues to present indications of risk to the public remains incarcerated
  • the offender has a valid reason to coöperate during incarceration
  • movement away from mandatory minimum sentences (determinate sentencing) results in fewer trials as defendants enter a plea before trial in hopes of leniency by the Board of Pardons and Parole; this has the added benefit of reducing the number of victims who must face traumatic experiences testifying in public trials

Appropriateness for different juvenile offenders

An indeterminate sentence works for any juvenile offender whose prior criminal history leaves doubt in the mind of the sentencing judge as to the offender’s level of amenability.  It is best for first-time offenders in which the ability of the offender to rehabilitate is very much in question.  Repeat offenders who have not responded well to previous efforts at rehabilitation can be given an indeterminate sentence which may last until the offender’s age of majority (when the offender legally becomes an adult).

Determinate Sentencing

Cons: (French, 1977)

  • little discretion for sentencing judges
  • little incentive for inmate to behave or rehabilitate while incarcerated in a fixed-length sentence
  • abolishment of the parole board
  • the opportunity for the inmate to play a role in their own release is circumvented; “self-discipline has to be used or the inmate gains nothing.” (French, 1977, p. 10)
  • may violate the traditional philosophy of the juvenile justice system (of rehabilitative ideals) if the offender is detained longer than the necessary time needed for rehabilitation for punitive purposes

Pros: (French, 1977)

  • removes the aura of uncertainty from the justice system
  • threatens the potential criminal with a definite prison term
  • narrowing judiciary discretion (also seen as a con to many)
  • limits disparity in sentencing
  • limits possibility of social or ethnic bias in sentencing
  • coercive techniques sometimes used by trial judges can no longer be employed
  • may offer a deterrent motive for juvenile offenders not to commit delinquent acts

Appropriateness for different juvenile offenders

Since it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the exact amount of time it will take for individual juvenile offenders’ to rehabilitate, determinate sentencing provides more of a just desserts and punitive focus in dealing with juvenile offenders.  It is appropriate only at the extremes of delinquent behavior.  For example, a short-term determinate sentence is appropriate for status offenders who have not committed a crime but instead may need a short-term determinate sentence only as a deterrent incentive.  At the other extreme is the chronic and serious violent offender who has previously served an indeterminate sentence and has not responded well to rehabilitation.  This person may need the deterrence and punishment effects (as well as the community needing protection from the offender) of a long-term determinate sentence lasting until the age of majority.


… Part II will be posted soon with:

  • Interventions Used with Indeterminate Sentencing

  • Impact of Waiver on Indeterminate Sentencing

  • Impact of Indeterminate Sentencing on Recidivism


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