Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in Criminal Justice, 1950-1990

By Samuel Walker | Go to book overview

up to eighteen months on parole). The supervision includes the traditional functions of parole--enforcement of conditions of release, counseling, and so on--including the discretionary power to revoke parole in the event that conditions are violated. Revocation, however, can result in imprisonment of no more than six months. This represents a substantial reduction in discretionary power, since revocation under the indeterminate sentence law returned the offender to an indeterminate status with no formal limit.

The most thorough review of the question of parole abolition cautiously recommended it as a policy goal. 82 Eliminating discretionary parole release, von Hirsch and Hanrahan argued, would end the system of divided responsibility over the length of prison terms that was and is central to the indeterminate sentence. On the one hand, this would help focus control over the length of prison terms as a matter of social policy. On the other hand, von Hirsch and Hanrahan make a persuasive argument that the indeterminate sentence fostered a basically dishonest system of criminal punishments. The law advertised one thing, judges meted out something else, and parole boards modified it further. Prison sentences came to be measured officially in vast amounts of time, with everyone knowing that few offenders would actually serve the theoretical maximum. Parole abolition, then, would encourage honesty in sentencing and sentences that represented "modest real sentences." 83


Conclusions

The sentencing reform movement of the past fifteen years has, arguably, produced the most fundamental changes to be found in any area of criminal justice. In no other area has there been such a broad-ranging debate over first principles and such sweeping changes in operating assumptions and practices. To be sure, major reform has been a patchwork affair; only some jurisdictions have completely overhauled criminal sentencing. It is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the impact of the sentencing reform movement. We are still somewhere in the early or middle stages of a historic period of change and we do not yet know where it will lead. It is possible, however, to draw some general conclusions about the direction of change to date.

The first and most important point is that the sentencing reform movement has produced a substantial reduction in the sum total of

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