Sentencing Reforms and the Supreme Court
In making judgments against specific crimes committed by defendants, The US’ Supreme Court judges and federal trial court judges use some sentencing systems. These sentencing systems have continued to be improved over time to suit particular legal interests. This essay conducts an in-depth look at the sentencing reforms and the types of sentencing laws put in practice by the Supreme Court in the US and the federal trial court judges.
To start with, for the most of the 20th century. The federal court judges and the state had a lot of discretionary powers in deciding the appropriate punishment in criminal cases as displayed in the case of Charles Appendix, Ralph Blakely and Freddie Booker who were all sentenced higher terms than the ones stipulated in the statute. They followed a process called indeterminate sentencing. As explained by Hemmens (2015) indeterminate sentencing is a type of sentencing where by the judge does not know the maximum period a convicted defendant would spend in jail. The only role of a judge, in this case, is to set the maximum term a prisoner would serve. However, the behavior of the prisoner is monitored by the parole boards, which then makes decisions on whether the person should be released.
The primary basis for the establishment of the indeterminate type of sentencing is that the main aim of criminal sentencing is to rehabilitate rather than to punish. Also, the parole is also a product of the philosophy of rehabilitation. Therefore, when the parole board determines that a person has changed and developed a good behavior, the person could be released before the end of the prison term. The effect of this is that a person could serve a lesser term than the one prescribed by the judge.
Although the creation of indeterminate sentencing changed people’s views about sentencing, it became a victim of sharp criticism, especially in the 1970s. Hemmens (2015) uses the arguments made by Frankel in 1972 and Wilson in 1977 that prisons had changed into extremely crowded places manned by violent inmates who constantly assaulted their weak fellows and corrupt prison officials and guards, to explain the circumstances which called for the disbandment of indeterminate sentencing. Hemmens (2015), goes on to explain that the poor and the African American men were arrested and convicted at rates higher than even their population. This led to class discrimination and charges of racism.
According to the conservatives, the increase in the level of crime rates, overcrowding in prisons, the 1960s urban riots and the gross disorder in the cities sent some warning on the failing state of the US’ law and justice institutions. They also complained of the rise in revolving door justice, whereby the criminal suspects were apprehended and set free in mere hours. It is by these criticisms that the conservatives and the politicians called for the improvement of the sentencing laws.
Ordinarily, the complaints raised by the conservatives and the politicians carried a lot of weight. There was an actual overflow in the local jails, the courts, and the state prisons. This called for the need to create sentencing procedures that could vest less discretion in sentencing and release decisions and make the process of administering punishment more consistent (Hemmens, 2015). To rectify the above problems, there was a need to adopt sentencing based purely on legal criteria. For instance, using the offender’s criminal records and type of offense to administer judgments and making the duration of imprisonment to coincide with the period of the sentence pronounced by the judge.
The only way to ensure that people served the exact sentence as pronounced by the judges was to abolish the parole system. Luckily, in the late 1970s, some states abolished the system, hence ending indeterminate sentencing and adopting determinate sentencing. As expounded by Hemmens (2015) in a determinate sentencing system, the decision made by the judge dictates the number of months or years a prisoner would serve and not the parole board. The effect of this is that there is a slim chance that a prisoner would serve a lesser term than the one ordered by the judge.
However, it is also important to note that, in a determinate sentencing system, a prisoner could still serve a lesser term than that ordered by the court of law. The only difference is that the amount of “good time” credit that a prisoner can receive is set by the law. The judges in the course of their judgment may also deem it fit to administer a higher or lower term than the one stated by the statutes. This only shows that although the conservatives advocate for determinate sentencing, it has not been fully implemented by the Supreme Court judges and other federal court magistrates in the US.
Also, most states that practice determinate sentencing have continued to administer restrictions on judicial discretion by crowning the specific sentence durations and ranges of sentence available for the judges in statutes. This ensures that the judges stick to the set guidelines in administering judgments and that the convicted persons serve the right term as given by the judges.
In the determinate sentencing, criterion, some judges could still administer lesser or higher terms than those formulated by the statutes for specific crimes. Conversely, to ensure that there is strict adherence to the legal provisions in sentencing, some states came up with comprehensive sentencing guidelines to be followed by the judges. Hemmens (2015), states that Minnesota was the first to adopt comprehensive sentencing guidelines in 1980. It was then followed by Pennsylvania in 1981, Washington in 1984 and Federal government in 1987. In this system of sentencing, when a judge sentences outside the prescribed guidelines, then he/she must give a reason for doing so. In a case whereby a judge cannot explain the reasons for sentencing outside the guidelines, then he/she may face a reversal of the judgment made on appeal by the defendant.
Courts have adopted the comprehensive guidelines system in more than 20 states in the US who have fully abolished the discretionary parole. In these states, sentencing is both determinate and presumptive. On the other hand in some states, compliance with guidelines is essentially voluntary. It is also vital to note that the guidelines are not identical. Every state has a different guideline. But a fact is the guidelines have some identical features. They are developed in a chart. The columns in the chart contain the criminal records of the offender, weighted according to their seriousness (Hemmens, 2015). In this system, the exact formula for determining the criminal history of the offender is also provided by the statute.
Of course, the comprehensive guidelines approach still allows room for the discretion to operate. For instance, a judge may still sentence outside the guidelines in some cases by pointing to aggravating factors that warrant, less or more punishment. These types of sentences are known as departure sentences. For instance in Washington, the judges can sentence below or above the set range if they have compelling reasons to do so.
Apart from the fact that determinate and comprehensive sentencing systems aimed at reducing the discretion of the judges, it is worth noting that of all the sentencing reforms, created, the presumptive and determinate sentencing did the most to limit discretion, but most states did not go that far. In fact, most states have continued to use indeterminate sentencing (Hemmens, 2015). Some states, however, performed some attempts to ensure that some offenders serve longer terms in prisons than others by, passing mandatory minimums.
In an attempt to further limit judicial discretion in sentencing, various states have come up with mandatory minimums. These are factors that seek to increase the minimum sentence that can be awarded to a person. For instance, the location of the crime, use of a weapon and the characteristics of the victim. Hemmens (2015), argues that mandatory minimums are not mandatory. More specifically, they only become mandatory if the prosecutor decides to assert the facts that necessitate an increased minimum sentence, for instance in case of an offender’s third strike.
Implications of Supreme Court Rulings on Sentencing
In federal and state systems, criminal sentencing is conducted by judges. The trial judges put into practice the sentencing rules and select convictions for individual defendants. The Appellate judges including the Supreme Court justices also conduct sentencing (Hemmens, 2015). The judges are charged with the responsibility of interpreting the meaning of the sentencing statutes and determine when they are ambiguous. They also decide whether the statutes are consistent with the state constitution.
In conclusion, the sentencing systems used in the US have been subject to amendments which dictate the level of discretion of justices in sentencing. Initially, many states in the US used an indeterminate system, whereby the judges were unable to predetermine the number of months a person could be put in jail. The decisions to hold or release someone from the jail vested on the Parole board. However, with the increase in the number of criticisms from the conservatives and politicians, most states adopted determinate sentencing, thus reducing the discretionary powers vested in the judges. However, amendments have continued to be made over time, with some states adopting a comprehensive guidelines approach, and installing mandatory minimums in specific cases. These amendments have continued to dictate how the Supreme Court judges handle different cases as there is a need for them to stick to specific guidelines when sentencing criminal offenders.