Sentencing may be described as the decision of action taken against one convicted of an offense. Sentencing is obviously an important decision in the criminal justice process, and has evolved with it. Society has traditionally responded to criminal acts by handing over a punishment to the offender. In the implementation of sentencing, a conflict is evident between the goals of equal justice and the individualized justice with punishment to the offender, in line with the interpretation of the criminal law. It should be noted here that there is an element of reflex in our concept of punishment. Human beings have a tendency to hit back when we are harmed. Mackie (1982) traces the origins of such offender punishments to these reflex actions. But some other researchers suggest that irrespective of its origins, punishments are the outcome of our cultural and social identities. It is evident in what we see and recognize as a crime and what we don’t, and how we punish it. Sentencing is today the imposition of a punishment, involving the legislators, victims, judges, defense counsel, parole boards, prison administrators and police officers (CBASSE).
The origins of justice and sentencing may be traced to lawlessness or a state of anarchy, which once prevailed upon mankind. The condition was particularly serious when poverty, scarcity and lack of progress existed. The result was that, without a government or a binding society, people were robbing and attacking each other for gains. The dominant ones were successful and got away scot-free. Gradually people got together and took steps to ensure their common interests. This is also reflected by the social contract theory, which advocates that when man cannot rely on his individual powers to secure an individual contented way of life, they come together to form a common force (Kemerling). They agreed to initiate measures to ensure their common interests in areas of concern and try to reverse the state of lawlessness. They formed an accord not to harm each other, and together punish anyone who commits harm on any of them. People agreed and obliged to this accord on the assumption that all others would accept it too.
The introduction of modern sentencing may be attributed to the main schools of thought that influenced criminology. The notable among these were the Classical School and the Positive School. The Classical School which was prominent from the late 1700s to the early 1800s was more involved with law making and other related issues than with criminals. It opined that individuals took to crime from a free will and that punishments would deter them from indulging in crimes. The theory developed by the Classical School advocated punishments to be in excess of the pleasure and benefits derived from committing the criminal act. The Positivists on the other hand saw criminal behavior as a result of factors like biological, psychological and social traits. The Positivist School that was in existence between the mid 1800s and the early 1900s was more focused on criminal behavior and suggested preventing crime through appropriate treatment of the offenders. The positivists suggested that rehabilitation would help in the reduction of crime rate. However surveys revealed that rehabilitation was ineffective and that only punishments could be effective in reducing crime.
The idea behind sentencing and punishment is that it would deter people from committing crimes. Lack of punishments for crime, only encourages people to indulge in it and benefit at the cost of others. Appropriate punishments would make people think before committing a crime. People would consider the risks and the gains when there is a threat of punishment looming large. When these punishments are severe they are more likely to refrain from committing crimes. Future crimes would be lesser when punishments are fully implemented and effectively carried out (Law.jrank). The idea of punishing is that the morality is restored when the wrongful act is condemned by a punishment. Although the victim’s suffering or loss cannot be made good at times, a punishment would hamper advantages of the crime.
Sentencing in the US during the late 1800s and the early 1900s was associated with fluctuations and evolutions, when the criminal justice system incorporated the rehabilitation into punishments. The rehabilitation model was based on the concept that opportunities of rehabilitation should be extended to offenders, taking into consideration the life conduct of the offender, and therefore look for ways in which rehabilitation could benefit. The system of ‘intermediate sentencing’ was established, under which state and federal judges had the liberty to impose a sentence taking into account the offender’s character, background and the circumstances of the crime. The judges could therefore sentence the offenders to any kind of punishment ranging from probation to the maximum prescribed sentence. An offender sent to prison was then subject to the Parole board’s determination as to whether the offender need to serve the entire sentence or could be released early on grounds of rightful conduct.
However, the theories and understanding of effective punishment changed during the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1970s indeterminate sentencing came under criticism for its inconsistency and arbitrary nature. Offenders were only serving a little of their sentence, before being released or paroled. The scholarly literature of the times also emphasized that rehabilitation oriented efforts were not effective (Jamie Markham). With raising crime rates and too much discretion in the hands of parole boards and judges, several states passed the minimum sentences for certain crimes. The deterrence model which received support, suggested that people would be deterred from crime only when its consequences are severe, and demanded establishing sentencing guidelines. The concept of sentencing guidelines became prominent by 1980 and many state legislatures passed the reform acts. These acts made sure that offenders with similar types of offences and backgrounds received similar punishments. At the federal level, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was passed by the Congress which created the independent federal agency, the United States Sentencing Commission. The act also ended the concept of federal parole and fixed the time credited for good behavior of inmates at 54 days a year.
The United States Sentencing Commission is a judicial branch of the government and is based in Washington. The commission is constituted by seven voting members, appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. The commission is formed of seven offices including four for dealing with policy issues. These four offices are General Counsel, Monitoring, Policy Analysis, and Education and Sentencing Practice while the other three are support offices. The sentencing guidelines became effective on November 1, 1987. The Commission is authorized to submit amendments to the Congress which automatically come into effect after 180 days. The Commission has however emphasized that its guidelines determination process was only evolutionary and expects research, analysis and experience to modify and revise them for amendments.
The sentencing guidelines help federal judges with consistent and fair ranges to determine the sentence. The guidelines consider all aspects of the crime committed including criminal record of the offender and the seriousness of the offense committed. The offence is categorized into one of the 43 offense levels and each offender associated with one of the six categories of criminal history (Legislative and Public Affairs). The guideline range of an offender’s sentence is based on the offense level and the history of the offender. The guidelines however had provisions to allow a little discretion by the judges to modify the sentences. The upper limit of the guideline range exceeds the bottom limit by six months or by 25% to offer flexibility, and judges is required to fix the sentence based on these guidelines.
Contemporary sentencing is however involved with several ethical considerations. Although an apparent balance between individual concern and societal needs seem to be met, certain ethical dilemmas continue to persist. Notable among these are honesty and discrimination in sentencing (Michael et al.). Any fair sentencing system requires ensuring these. Sentencing in human civilization has come a long way from the days of anarchy and barbarous sentencing. Today sentencing is an important factor in the maintenance of any society and ensuring this hasn’t been easy. This is easily evident from the US sentencing systems which underwent constant reforms, in line with the changing times. People involved with Criminal Justice Management need to be prepared to implement constant changes in the sentencing system according to changing profiles of the offenders and the interests of the society.
Michael C. Braswell, Belinda R. McCarthy, Bernard J. McCarthy. Justice, Crime and Ethics. Elsevier. 2012. Web. 4 April 2012
Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education: Research on Sentencing: The search for reform, Vol I. (CBASSE) 1983. Web. 3 April 2012.
Office of the Legislative and Public Affairs. An overview of the United States Sentencing Commission. Web. 4 April 2012
Kemerling G., Hobbes’s Leviathan, 2006. Web. 3 April 2012 from
Law.jrank., Punishment – Moral justifications and legal punishment, 2008. Web. 5 April 2012 from
Jamie Markham., Thoughts on the Purposes of Sentencing: History, Theory, and Reality?. 2011. Web. 4 April 2012.