Limiting Retributivism
Richard S. Frase

Norval Morris's theory of limiting retributivism provides one solution to the perennial problem of how to reconcile the often-conflicting purposes of punishment. Under Morris's theory, concepts of just deserts set upper and occasionally lower limits on sentencing severity. Within these outer limits, other purposes and principles provide the necessary fine-tuning of the sentence imposed in a particular case. Such other purposes and principles include not only traditional crime-control purposes such as deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation but also considerations of equality (uniformity) and a concept Morris calls parsimony: a preference for the least severe alternative that will achieve the purposes of the particular sentence. Morris rejected coerced rehabilitation as a reason for imprisonment or for extending a prison term and also argued that the type or duration of the sentence should rarely if ever be based on individual predictions of dangerousness. His later writings expressed strong support for sentencing guidelines, provided they are flexible and incorporate intermediate sanctions as well as prison terms.

Many desert theorists reject Morris's model and would allow almost no role for nondesert sentencing goals in determining the severity of individual sentences. In their view such goals, as well as the concept of parsimony, should only be used to determine the overall severity of the punishment scale and the choice among different types of sanction that are deemed of equivalent severity. On the other hand, sentencing policy makers and practitioners seem to give just deserts an even smaller role than Morris does—most contemporary sentencing systems still follow some version of indeterminate sentencing, emphasizing judicial and parole discretion and crime-control purposes.

Can these differing views be reconciled? Is it possible to reach broad agreement on an overall sentencing model that has not only a principled basis but also some realistic prospect of being widely adopted or at least providing a suitable reform goal? In the absence of such a consensus model, can sentencing theorists, policy makers, and researchers even en


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The Future of Imprisonment


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