When examined in historical perspective, the evolution of modern sentencing is in many ways cyclical. Recent years have seen evidence that the “tough on crime” movement in America is beginning to subside, in part because sustained growth in American corrections along the lines of past decades is no longer feasible, and in part because of growing evidence in support of rehabilitative correctional programs. One indelible consequence of modern sentencing reforms has been an unprecedented increase in the incarcerated population in America. Over the past 40 years, American prison populations have quintupled, reaching new milestones, with more than 2 million offenders confined behind bars, and more than 1% of the total U.S. population incarcerated on any given day. Financially, socially, and morally, this rate of imprisonment cannot continue unabated. The pendulum of punishment is therefore showing signs of swinging away from the law-and-order crime control policies of the 1980s and 1990s, back toward more offender-based rehabilitative and restorative sentencing principles.
A number of jurisdictions have expanded their community punishment options and placed increasing emphasis on intermediate sanctions as alternatives to jail and prison. Although research evidence regarding their cost effectiveness and crime-deterrent capabilities so far has been less than encouraging, intermediate punishments do provide for greater proportionality in punishment by offering a range of sanctions between probation and prison. A variety of restorative justice programs that emphasize the reparation of harm for the offender, victim, and society in sentencing have also emerged in recent years, as have specialized problem-solving courts that target the specific needs of particular offenders. For instance, specialized drug courts exist in all 50 states now, and although their details vary, they combine the efforts of justice and treatment professionals to provide more intensive treatment, management, and supervision for drug-addicted offenders. Similar specialized courts exist for teen offenders, mentally ill persons, and for family offenses among others.
As the 21st century continues, there will likely be an emerging public policy dilemma between well-established determinate sentencing structures that now exist in many states and the emerging social movement reemphasizing offender-based sentencing options, at least for some defendants and some crimes. If the progress of alternative and restorative sentencing options continues on its current path, the future will likely witness a growing disjuncture between existing determinate sentencing systems and increasingly individualized sentencing movements. It will therefore be the challenge of future generations to effectively balance the goals of equity and uniformity within structured sentencing frameworks with the emerging emphasis on individualized rehabilitative approaches to procedural and restorative justice in the United States. Successful integration of these alternatives will almost certainly require an expanded role for both social research and evidence-based sentencing policy to live up to the challenge of fair and effective sentencing in the 21st century.
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