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May 16, 2014

Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Modern Era

As explained here, I am "celebrating" the official publication of my new article titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences" (which is available in full via this SSRN link) through a series of posts exploring sentence finality doctrines and practice.  And, as set forth in this prior post, a central theme of my piece is that different conceptual, policy, and practical considerations are implicated when a defendant seeks only review and reconsideration of his final sentence and does not challenge his underlying conviction.  

As noted in prior posts, my theme is developed descriptively in the first part of my article as I showcase (perhaps too briefly) how the forms and functions of different punishment systems throughout US history provide different frameworks for the legal and practical relationship between conviction finality and sentence finality.  In this post, I will reprint my article's final historical observations about sentence finality during the "Modern Era" stretching from the the 1970s through today.  At the start of this period, U.S. sentencing philosophies, policies, and practices changed dramatically.  Legislatures through this period have embraced determinate sentencing laws that require prison sentences for most offenses and require very lengthy prison terms for nearly all serious offenses and repeat offenders.  These modern sentencing realities, in turn, has considerably changed the nature and stakes of issues surrounding sentence finality:

[Modern incarceration] statistics suggest there may now be more individuals condemned to die in America’s prisons based on their current “final” sentences than the total prison population in the 1960s when courts and scholars began earnestly discussing the importance of finality for criminal judgments.  As explained before, the then-prevailing practices of indeterminate sentencing and parole entailed that the vast majority of 300,000 persons incarcerated in 1970 could take comfort in the then-prevailing reality that the duration of and justification for their ongoing prison terms would be regularly reviewed and reconsidered by corrections officials.  Today, in sharp contrast, the majority of the 2.25 million incarcerated individuals in the United States cope with the now-prevailing reality that their prison sentences are fixed and final and not subject to any regularized means of review or reconsideration for any purposes.

In sum, the transformation of the sentencing enterprise and embrace of mandatory sentencing schemes throughout the United States over the past four decades has been remarkable and remarkably consequential for the considerable number of offenders sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment.  The highly discretionary indeterminate sentencing systems that had been dominant for a century have been replaced by an array of sentencing structures that govern and control sentencing decisionmaking.  Most pertinent to the topic of this Essay, prison sentences that had for more than a century been defined by a lack of finality are now fixed and final in the vast majority of all serious criminal cases at the moment they are announced by a sentencing judge.  Consequently, two centuries of U.S. criminal justice experience in which sentence finality was not a distinct concern has given way, due to dramatic changes in sentencing laws, policies, and practices, to a modern era of mass and massive terms of incarceration that makes the treatment of final sentences arguably the most important issue for hundreds of thousands of current prisoners and for the tens of thousands more defendants being sentenced to lengthy prison terms each year throughout the United States.  Sentence finality, in short, has gone from being a non-issue to being arguably one of the most important issues in modern American criminal justice systems.

Prior posts in this series:

May 16, 2014 at 11:16 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Doug, i would call the era that ended in the 1970's the Idealistic Era. It was concerned with more then just rehabilitation. I would call the era we are now leaving the Simple-Minded Era. It has been based on a dumbed-down understanding of the problem. Hopefully we are moving into a Realistic Era, where a sensible correction plan will be made in each case.

Posted by: Tom McGee | May 16, 2014 5:16:22 PM

It might be worth mentioning that in many European and civil law countries there is a constitutional right for persons incarcerated for a particular offense to benefit from any subsequent reduction in the sentences for that offense.

So, for example, if someone was sentenced to 15 years for possession of crack cocaine and five years later the maximum sentence for the offense was reduced to five years, that person would be entitled to immediate release of right as a matter of constitutional law.

Posted by: ohwilleke | May 16, 2014 6:45:40 PM

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