U.S. flag

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

Reconsidering Indeterminate and Structured Sentencing, Research in Brief

NCJ Number
Michael Tonry
Date Published
September 1999
11 pages
Publication Series
In an effort to explore some of the competing conceptions of sentencing and corrections in the United States, this paper presents an overview of the state of indeterminate and structured sentencing and summarizes arguments for and against each approach.
Indeterminate sentencing views offenders as malleable and redeemable and, accordingly, allows maximum scope for efforts to provide services to offenders and to expose them to opportunities for self-improvement and advancement. Further, indeterminate sentencing allows judges and corrections officials routinely to take public safety considerations into account when making decisions about individual offenders. Moreover, indeterminate sentencing places decision-making authority in the hands of officials who are in direct contact with the offender and his/her circumstances. Indeterminate sentencing assumes that judges and corrections officials have specialized knowledge and experience that can be used to design effective programs, control risks to the public, and aid in offender reform. Indeterminate sentencing also allows corrections managers to deal with problems of overcrowding or with changes in resource allocation by adjusting policies governing award of good time, setting parole release dates, or releasing offenders on furloughs or to intermittent or partial confinement. The criticisms of indeterminate sentencing, like the positive values attributed to it, are sometimes inconsistent. Some criticisms of indeterminate sentencing are disparities, bias and stereotypes, inadequate implementation, deserved punishments, public sentiment, and treatment effectiveness. Still, a majority of the States still have sentencing and corrections systems that can fairly be described as indeterminate. Possible reasons for retaining these systems are inertia, hypocrisy, and managers' self-interest. For much of the past two decades, it appeared that structured sentencing would gradually replace indeterminate sentencing, but this now looks less likely. Although these sentencing guidelines systems can achieve many of their creators' goals, they cannot easily encompass newer goals, especially those of community/restorative and risk-based sentencing. The success of structured sentencing is partly due to its having served the various policy goals of the 1970's and the 1990's. Criticisms of structured sentencing are based on two concerns: that it has insufficiently realized its potential and that current initiatives need to be extended and perfected; and that it has gone too far and made sentencing too impersonal and mechanical. Other documents in this series of publications from the Executive Sessions on Sentencing and Corrections will focus on the other sentencing concepts: community/restorative and risk-based sentencing. 14 notes

Date Published: September 1, 1999