Sentencing Matters

Sentencing Matters

Sentencing Matters

Sentencing Matters


Michael Tonry offers a comprehensive overview of research, policy developments, and practical experience concerning sentencing and sanctions. He considers what we know about the effects of innovations of the past twenty years on sentencing disparities, and what directions policy should move in the next twenty years.


Sentencing has been in a process of "reform" for a quarter century, but there is no more agreement now than in 1975 about what is wrong or how it can be made right. Then as now liberals were concerned about disparities, racial and class bias, unfair processes, and excessively harsh punishments. Then as now conservatives believed that many punishments were too lenient, that procedures were too complicated and time‐ consuming, and that crime rates would fall if only more people were locked up and for longer times.

Traditional processes in which judges try, case by case, to fashion sentences that vindicate victims' interests, acknowledge offenders' circumstances, and take account of public safety concerns have lost favor. Both liberals and conservatives distrust those processes but for different reasons; liberals worry that judges will be arbitrary or prejudiced, conservatives that judges will be softhearted and lenient.

Reformers' passions and persistence continue unabated. In every state and the federal system, calls are made for sentencing guidelines, mandatory penalties, and "three-strikes" laws; for more use of community penalties; for crime reduction through deterrence and incapacitation ; and for crime reduction through treatment and prevention.

The political debates have changed remarkably little in a quarter century. Many people have strong commonsense beliefs about sentencing and punishment, but it is often common sense uninformed by knowledge.

That is a pity, because we have learned a great deal in the past twenty-five years about sentencing processes, the crime-reductive effects of punishments, and what happens when sentencing laws are changed. From research and systematic observation in the United States and other Western countries, we have learned how to craft sentencing laws and punishment policies that are fair, respectful of human rights, and protective of public safety. We have also learned that the effort to replace falli-

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