Law. Indeterminate Sentencing

Indeterminate Sentencing

An indeterminate sentence is a sentence enforced to a criminal offence with no definite duration. It does not state a release date and only gives a range of time for which one will be sentenced, such as “ten to fifteen years” (US Legal, 2010). This system was initially used on juvenile delinquents to enable their early release if they responded positively to correctional mechanisms. Normally, the sentence period would last between 14 and 24 month. While in prison, the juveniles were closely supervised and monthly reports submitted by the correctional authorities. Indeterminate sentence has however been expanded to include non-juveniles. A positive attribute of this form of sentence is that it gives hope rather than fear to the offender. This is besides making him realize that his fate lies in his own hands and could be released early if he cooperated with correctional officers (Manuel, 2010).

The greatest advantage of this form of sentence is that it is more of a corrective mechanism to the inmate rather than a punishment. An indeterminate sentence leads to the inmate’s rehabilitation and such a sentence must meet the individual needs of such an inmate. Once behind bars, the inmate serves the minimum sentence and undergoes classes and other close supervisions to make sure that they no longer present a danger to other members of the public. The inmates are released once they appear to have reformed while those who have not reformed remain under the jail system. The decision to release such an inmate is made by the parole boards once they ascertain that the offender can comfortably co-exist with others in the society. Inmates are therefore motivated to change their behaviors in order to have an early release, thereby promoting discipline within the prisons.

However, indeterminate sentence has been criticized for failing to provide an exact timeline for which an inmate will be held in a prison facility. Critics argue that this uncertainty is in itself a psychological punishment greater than the sentence itself. Prisoners say that they would prefer a longer but definite term of a sentence rather than a short indefinite one and say that they always suffer from injustice due to the indefinite nature of these sentences. This criticism arises from the fact that the inmates are kept in the dark regarding the duration of their sentence, however short it may be.

Another weakness of this system is the likelihood of misjudging an offender’s progress in the path towards reform. The parole board can err in making an assumption that the inmate has reformed and is fit for release and this could result to a premature release, thereby failing in its core function of reforming the offenders. Conversely, the parole board may also fail to notice the progress made by an inmate, leading to a prolonged jail term. The system may promote sycophancy among the inmates as they work to secure an early release, rather than to reform (Manuel, 2010).

A final weakness of the system is the dependence of the parole boards on the reports from the correctional officers, these wardens may give incorrect reports based on their relationship with the offender. This could also lead to a longer prison term for an inmate who has otherwise reformed or the release of a prisoner who has not truly reformed (BBC, 2010).

Determinate Sentence

Unlike in indeterminate sentences, terms for specific crimes in determinate sentences are set by a legislature thereby withdrawing the sentencing judgment away from the judges. In determinate sentences, the decision of whether an offender goes into prison lies with the judge but the decision of the duration of the sentence lies with the legislature. Determinate sentencing eradicates the role of parole boards and recognitions for involvement in rehabilitation programs. A parole may be granted to an offender once he/she has served a portion of his sentence upon recommendation from the sentencing judge or once more evidence surfaces that absolve the offender of any wrongdoing among other factors.

Determinate sentences have been praised for moving the sentencing process form judges to prosecutors and this increases the chance of offenders being sent to prison, prolongs sentences and restricts the early release of offenders. A hope is held that this method will lead to elimination of uncertainties in sentencing processes, shorter prison sentences due to the possibility of a parole and a reduction of the population in the prisons. These have however not been achieved. Determinate sentence laws dictate that the offender must serve at least 85 per cent of their sentence before they can be given a parole. It is because of these laws that determinate sentencing has been blamed for overcrowding in prisons and delays in court processes (NCJRS, n.d.).

The fixed sentence provided in the sentence laws may not lead to sentencing reform. This is because uncertainties in the process would increase since the structures in this model do not affect the qualification for probation. Inconsistencies may not increase due to the authority of the judiciary to influence the outcome of the sentence through exaggerated circumstances. The inmates undergoing this sentencing is assured of release once he/she completes the term and this may cause a satisfaction that they have completed their term and this clears away the guilt associated with the felony for which they were imprisoned. This washing away of the guilt creates a self-satisfaction that should rather come from having reformed to a better person.

Mandatory Sentence

This is a system where the law limits the judicial rulings and once an offender is convicted of a felony, he/she must serve a minimum number of years in prison. The laws used in mandatory sentences eliminate the role of judges in handling of the judgment process, specifically the charges to file and giving alternative sentences to offenders (Sentencing, 2010).. These laws require judges to sentence offenders to a specific duration in prison to which the offender serves a minimum before qualifying for parole (Drug Policy Alliance, 2010). A prosecutor’s decision of the choice of crimes to be charged depends on the policies and plea-bargaining practices and such convictions are normally flexible

Proponents of this sentencing model believe that it leads to crime reduction and ensures justice and uniformity in the conviction of offenders. They point to the fact that no one is expected to partake in criminal activities since they are sure of their sentence if caught. On the other hand, opponents say that crimes can be reduced by increasing the likelihood of their conviction rather than the sentence if convicted. They argue that the loss of control by the judge over the sentencing eliminates the application of caution in the sentencing procedure. In addition, they say that reforming the offenders is more economical than imposing long-term sentences and cite a survey that concluded that the public favor judicial discretion to mandatory minimums. There is also an argument that mandatory sentencing fails to put off crime and have instead led to an escalation of racial and gender inequalities besides contributing to overcrowding in prison facilities. Mandatory sentences do not eradicate the sentencing inequalities earlier described, rather transfers the judgment process from the judge to the prosecutors who are not answerable, thus failing to punish high-level criminals (Cliffsnotes, 2010).


Sentencing guidelines have been adopted by legislations around the world, especially in the US where more than 17 states have signed up to these guidelines. The guidelines assist the judges in determining the best type of sentencing to use for different crimes committed. The judges are not expected to digress away from the regulations except when handling cases that are not covered under the guidelines. The adoption of these guidelines has led to a reduction in the disadvantages associated with each of the sentencing models. These include a reduction in the sentencing inequalities, a reduction in the number of inmates and reserving prison space to high-level prisoners. A reduction in prisoner numbers has also led to a reduction in the cost of running the prison facilities since a lot of money is used to keep inmates as they serve their sentences (CliffsNotes, 2010).

Reference List

BBC. 2005. Q&A: Indeterminate sentences. Web.

Cliffsnotes. 2010. Sentencing Statutes and Guidelines. Web.

Drug Policy Alliance. 2010. Mandatory Minimum Sentences. Web.

Manuel, R. 2010. Indeterminate Sentence System. Web.

NCJRS (National Criminal Justice Reference Service). N.d. NCJRS Absreact. Web.

Sentencing. 2010. Mandatory and Mandatory Minimum Sentences. Web.

USLegal. 2010. Indeterminate Sentence Law & Legal Definition. Web.