The vast majority of social research on criminal sentencing revolves around issues of sentencing disparity, or differences in the criminal punishments given to different types of offenders. Of particular concern is unwarranted disparity, or sentencing differentials that result from consideration of factors other than those that are deemed legally relevant at sentencing. Whether or not sentencing disparity is warranted inherently involves a value judgment, but the majority of research in the area focuses on the influences of offender race, gender, class status, and mode of conviction in the sentencing process.


I. Historical Evolution of Modern Sentencing Systems

A. The Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal

B. The Determinate Sentencing Revolution

II. Modern Sentencing Innovations

A. Determinate Sentencing Laws

B. Mandatory Minimum Sentences

C. Sentencing Guidelines

III. Research on Criminal Sentencing

IV. The Future of Sentencing Research

V. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Historical Evolution of Modern Sentencing Systems

Few decisions in the criminal justice system exert as much influence over the life and liberty of criminal offenders as the final sentencing decision. Judges have a broad array of sentencing options, ranging from fines, restitution, and probation to incarceration in jail or prison. For much of the 20th century, criminal sentencing practices remained largely unchanged in the United States, but the past few decades have witnessed a virtual revolution in criminal punishment processes. A number of different sentencing reforms have been recently implemented or expanded, resulting in a variegated mix of different legal approaches to sentencing in the United States today. This research paper reviews the contemporary state of knowledge on U.S. criminal sentencing. It begins with a brief historical overview of sentencing philosophies, followed by a discussion of modern sentencing innovations. It then discusses research evidence regarding social inequalities in punishments before concluding with a discussion of unresolved issues in contemporary research on criminal punishment in the 21st century.

Criminal sentencing in America has long been guided by one of several different major philosophies of punishment, including retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation (Spohn, 2000). Retributive sentences involve punishments designed to exact revenge, in line with the biblical notion of “an eye for an eye.” This is based on the belief that some behaviors are categorically wrong and therefore deserving of punishment. From this perspective, sentences should be commensurate with the harm done to society in order to exact just punishment. Deterrence, on the other hand, involves a more utilitarian rationale for sentencing. It is based on the notion that crime is freely chosen as the result of a rational cost-benefit analysis. Individuals will engage in crime when the benefits outweigh the costs. The goal of sentencing, then, is to raise the costs of crime, in the form of punishment, to a level that will prevent future crime from occurring. In comparison, incapacitation argues that effective sentences should focus on removing serious offenders from society. Once isolated and secluded, criminal offenders will no longer be able to commit crimes against the public. Finally, rehabilitation as a philosophy of punishment emphasizes individual offender reform. According to this perspective, the goal of punishment should be to address the underlying causes of crime in order to reduce future offending. Although in practice these various sentencing rationales often coexist, throughout history major changes in sentencing have often followed paradigm shifts in predominant philosophies of punishment.

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