V. Conclusion

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.

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.


  1. Albonetti, C. (1991). An integration of theories to explain judicial discretion. Social Problems, 38, 247–266.
  2. Baldus, D. C., Pulaski, C., &Woodworth, G. (1983). Comparative review of death sentences:An empirical study of the Georgia experience. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 74, 661–673.
  3. Blumstein,A., Cohen, J.,Martin, S., &Tonry,M. (1983). Research on sentencing: The search for reform: Vol. 1. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  4. Crawford, C., Chiricos, T., & Kleck, G. (1998). Race, racial threat, and sentencing of habitual offenders. Criminology, 36(3), 481–511.
  5. Daly, K. (1995). Sex effects and sentencing: An analysis of the statistical literature. Justice Quarterly, 12, 141.
  6. Demuth, S. (2003). Racial and ethnic differences in pretrial release decisions and outcomes: A comparison of Hispanic, black, and white felony arrestees. Criminology, 41, 873–908.
  7. Eisenstein, J., Flemming, R., & Nardulli, P. (1988). The contours of justice: Communities and their courts. Boston: Little, Brown.
  8. Eisenstein, J., & Jacob, H. (1977). Felony justice: An organizational analysis of criminal courts. Boston: Little, Brown.
  9. Frankel, M. (1973). Criminal sentences: Law without order. New York: Hill & Wang.
  10. Frase, R. (2005). State sentencing guidelines: Diversity, consensus, and unresolved policy issues. Columbia Law Review, 105, 1190–1232.
  11. Hagan, J., & Bumiller, K. (1983). Making sense of sentencing: Race and sentencing outcomes. In A. Blumstein, J. Cohen, S. Martin, & M. Tonry (Eds.), Research on sentencing: The search for reform (pp. 1–54). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  12. Hofer, P. J. (2007). United States v. Booker as a natural experiment: Using empirical research to inform the federal sentencing policy debate. Criminology & Public Policy, 6, 433–460.
  13. Hogarth, J. (1971). Sentencing as a human process. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press in association with the Centre of Criminology.
  14. Johnson, B. D. (2005). Contextual disparities in guidelines departures: Courtroom social contexts, guidelines compliance, and extralegal disparities in criminal sentencing. Criminology, 43(3), 761–796.
  15. Johnson, B. D. (2006). The multilevel context of criminal sentencing: Integrating judge and county level influences. Criminology, 44(2), 259–298.
  16. Johnson, B. D., Ulmer, J. T., & Kramer, J. H. (2008). The social context of guidelines circumvention: The case of federal district courts. Criminology, 46(3), 737–783.
  17. Kimbrough v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 558 (2007).
  18. Kleck, G. (1981). Racial discrimination in criminal sentencing: A critical evaluation of the evidence with additional evidence on the death penalty. American Sociological Review, 46(6), 783–805.
  19. Kramer, J. H., & Ulmer, J. T. (2008). Sentencing guidelines: Lessons from Pennsylvania. Boulder, CO: Lynne
  20. Rienner. LaFree,G.D. (1985).Adversarial and nonadversarial justice:Acomparison of guilty pleas and trials. Criminology, 23, 289–312.
  21. LaFree, G. D. (1999). Losing legitimacy: Street crime and the decline of social institutions in America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  22. Lipton, D., Martinson, R., &Wilks, J. (1975). The effectiveness of correctional treatment: A survey of treatment evaluation studies. New York: Praeger.
  23. MacKenzie, D. L. (2001). Corrections and sentencing in the 21st century: Evidence-based corrections and sentencing. Prison Journal, 81, 3–17.
  24. Mears, D. P. (1998). The sociology of sentencing: Reconceptualizing decisionmaking processes and outcomes. Law & Society Review, 32, 667–724.
  25. Miethe, T. (1987). Charging and plea bargaining under determinate sentencing. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 78(1), 155–176.
  26. Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989).
  27. Rosette, A., & Cressey, D. (1976). Justice by consent: Plea bargaining in the American courthouse. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  28. Spohn, C. (2000). Thirty years of sentencing reform: The quest for a racially neutral sentencing process. Criminal Justice, 3, 427–501.
  29. Spohn, C., & Holleran, D. (2000). The imprisonment penalty paid by young unemployed black and Hispanic male offenders. Criminology, 38, 281–306.
  30. Steffensmeier, D., & Demuth, S. (2000). Ethnicity and sentencing outcomes in U.S. federal courts: Who is punished more harshly? American Sociological Review, 65, 705–729.
  31. Steffensmeier, D., Ulmer, J. T., & Kramer, J. (1998). The interaction of race, gender, and age in criminal sentencing: The punishment cost of being young, black, and male. Criminology, 36, 763–798.
  32. Stith, K., & Cabranes, J. (1998). Fear of judging: Sentencing guidelines in the federal courts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  33. Tonry, M. (1995). Malign neglect. New York: Oxford University Press.
  34. Tonry, M. (1996). Sentencing matters. New York: Oxford University Press.
  35. Ulmer, J. T. (1997). Social worlds of sentencing: Court communities under sentencing guidelines. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  36. Ulmer, J. T., & Johnson, B. D. (2004). Sentencing in context: A multilevel analysis. Criminology, 42(1), 137–177.
  37. Ulmer, J. T., Kurlychek, M., & Kramer, J. H. (2007). Prosecutorial discretion and the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 44(4), 427–458.
  38. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).
  39. Walker, S. (1998). Popular justice: A history of American criminal justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  40. Wellford, C. F. (2007). Sentencing research for sentencing reform. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(3), 399–402.
  41. Wilson, J. Q. (1975). Thinking about crime. New York: Random House.
  42. Wolfgang, M. E., Figlio, R. M., & Sellin, T. (1972). Delinquency in a birth cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  43. Zatz, M. (1987). The changing forms of racial/ethnic bias in sentencing. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 24(1), 69–92.
  44. Zatz,M. (2000).The convergence of race, ethnicity, gender, and class on court decision-making: Looking toward the 21st century. Criminal Justice, 3, 503–552.
  45. Zimring, F., Hawkins, G., & Kamin, S. (2003). Punishment and democracy: Three strikes and you’re out in California. New York: Oxford University Press.