U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Fragmentation of Sentencing and Corrections in America, Research in Brief

NCJ Number
Date Published
September 1999
8 pages
Publication Series

This paper, the first in a series from the Executive Sessions on Sentencing and Corrections, presents an overview of the current state of sentencing and corrections in America and a framework for analyzing the factors most likely to shape 21st century developments.


After a quarter-century of changes, there is no longer anything that can be called "the American system" of sentencing and corrections. As recently as 1975 there was a distinctively American approach, usually referred to as indeterminate sentencing, and it had changed little in the preceding 50 years. Its core features were broad authorized sentencing ranges, parole release, and case-by-case decision making. Its premises were that rehabilitation of offenders is a primary goal, that decisions affecting individuals should be tailored to them, and that judges and corrections officials have special expertise for making those decisions. All these features and premises have been under attack. In the most radical and comprehensive departures, some States and the Federal Government abolished parole boards, and some jurisdictions established comprehensive, detailed guidelines for sentencing. In addition, jurisdictions adopted mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws that require some offenders to serve at least 85 percent of imposed prison sentences. There are now many approaches to sentencing and corrections in the United States. Some States have guidelines with parole release. Some three-strikes States have adopted truth-in-sentencing; some have not. At the same time, restorative and community justice initiatives have taken root and begun to spread. They start with premises different from those of the sentencing law changes. One is a difference in perspective on the importance of individualized, case-by-case responses to crimes. Most restorative and community justice programs delegate to the victim, the offender, and others the decision about how best to respond to the particular factors of each case. It remains to be seen how sentencing laws and practices will evolve in the coming years, and whether one or a few approaches will gradually displace others. 9 notes

Date Published: September 1, 1999