The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

By Mauer, Marc | Corrections Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing


Mauer, Marc, Corrections Today


"Truth in sentencing,, may be one of the most misunderstood concepts in the criminal justice field. At a time when policymakers at the state and national level are promoting various truth-in-sentencing schemes, it is important to examine the broad range of goals, objectives and ideologies that are tied to this concept.

In recent years, truth in sentencing has gained much prominence at the federal level. The federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect in 1987 incorporated truth in sentencing, whereby offenders are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Both the 1994 and 1995 federal crime bills contained provisions to encourage states to adopt truth in sentencing as a condition of receiving federal prison construction aid. States that require that violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences are eligible for funding from the truth-in-sentencing portion of the $10 billion package of federal assistance.

A number of states also have adopted varying types of truth-in-sentencing legislation in recent years. These have been developed in a variety of ways -- as part of efforts to abolish parole, to adopt certain kinds of determinate sentencing guidelines and to implement other sentencing reforms.

Clearly, the impact of truth in sentencing will vary tremendously depending on the type of policy adopted and the goals behind it. In order to assess its impact, we need to understand the rationales and goals of these various policies.

As this assessment is done, what becomes even more clear is the need to examine both the intended and unintended consequences of such policies, such as what impact these policies will have on public safety, prison populations and the cost of corrections. Policies such as these also raise fundamental questions about decision-making within the criminal justice system-that is, to what extent it is desirable to maintain discretion within the system and, if so, in which parts of the system that discretion should reside. Once we begin to address these questions, we find that the development of effective and rational policy is more complex than it might appear at first.

Goals of Truth in Sentencing

Before we can assess the usefulness and impact of truth-in-sentencing policies, it is necessary to define the various goals of these policies. These generally can be categorized under three sometimes overlapping areas:

* To restore truth,, in the sentencing process so the public knows how much time an offender will serve in prison.

* To increase the proportion of a sentence that is served in prison, generally to percent, and/or to eliminate parole release as a means of reducing crime by keeping offenders incarcerated for a longer period of time.

* To control the use of prison space, often in conjunction with a guidelines system, so decision makers know in advance what the impact of sentencing will be on prison populations.

Truth in Sentencing's Impact

An assessment of the potential impact of truth-in-sentencing policies requires first that we define the various policies that fall under this terminology and second, that we consider their stated goals.

Restoring "truth" to the sentencing process.

An argument frequently made by proponents of truth in sentencing is that the public is confused and deceived about how much time offenders will serve in prison. For example, in an indeterminate sentencing state a burglar might receive a sentence of three to five years but be released on parole after serving "only" two years.

The source of this public dissatisfaction goes beyond just the perceived "untruthfulness" of the sentencing process. At a basic level, it reflects the general public fear of crime. Crime rates rose significantly in the 1960s and '70s, and the public's fear of crime began to escalate as well. People's fear of victimization, whether accurate or not, often focuses on the criminal justice system as the source of their problems, since common sense suggests that the system should be able to "cure" crime. …

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