Sentencing and Corrections: Exploring Major Issues

Article excerpt

Corrections in America today is fragmented and fracturing. There is no longer a "standard approach." What seems at first glance to be a nearly monolithic set of tough-on-crime policies is really illusory. Some states have abolished parole, but some retain it. Some have presumptive sentencing guidelines, while others have a voluntary system. In a climate favorable to determinate sentencing, the indeterminate approach remains widespread. What's more, policies developed in the get-tough climate are being challenged by new approaches based on premises that do not share the assumptions of our current, essentially retributive system of justice.

With such a complex picture, it is not easy to discern the goals of sentencing policy. The people who develop and carry out these policies are acutely aware that what happens in sentencing and corrections has enormous consequences, not only for resource allocation but also -- more fundamentally -- for the quality of justice and for public safety. The size of the population under some form of correctional supervision, now approaching 5.9 million, is the most obvious consequence. Helping policymakers sort out the salient issues could go a long way to maximize their effectiveness.

The Issues

To help policy-makers decide if there is a better way to think about sentencing and corrections, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the Justice Department, along with the Justice Department's Corrections Program Office (CPO), has been holding a series of "executive sessions" to discuss these issues. The goal of the five sessions, which began in 1998 and continue into this year, is to explore the purposes and functions of sentencing and corrections and their interdependence.

Practitioners and prominent scholars, who represent a broad cross section of points of view, come together in the sessions to examine a vast array of issues, including the decline of indeterminate sentencing, the erosion of judicial discretion, the eclipse of parole boards and the increased attention paid to risk-based sentencing. They also look at whether it is possible to reduce disparity in sentencing while accommodating differently situated offenders, how the imperative of public safety can be reconciled with the need for offender rehabilitation, how to deal with the "re-entry" process and whether the justice system adequately provides for participation by victims and affected communities.

Fruits of the Discussions

To get the results of the discussions into the hands of the people who can use them as soon as possible, NIJ and the CPO have released the first four papers from the sessions. …