In 2006-07, the Supreme Court invalidated certain state and federal determinate sentencing schemes of the California State, as they were found to be violating the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution by increasing or decreasing the term of the sentence without being subject to the decision of a jury.
Determinate sentencing can be defined as a jail or prison sentence that is definite, and not subject to review by a parole board or other agency. Such a judgment is made when a convicted criminal is given a stringent, non-negotiable, standard prison or jail penalty, the term of which has been dictated according to the law's statutes. In such cases, the judge has very little discretionary powers to influence the penalty.
Such sentences usually accompany crimes such as drug offenses. However, they may also be used in instances of the three strike law; for example, when giving a life sentence to person being accused for a third felony conviction. Another good example of determinate sentencing is a prison sentence of 6 months, where the prisoner will not be in jail for more than the specified time. On the other hand, a 20-year to life sentence is considered as indeterminate, because the release date is decided by being reviewed by a parole board. There are some advantages and disadvantages of determinate sentencing, that will help you understand the practice better, and see how it affects the working of the justice system.
Determinate sentencing comes into play in a juvenile case only when he/she is convicted of a serious offense, such as murder, kidnapping, assault, sexual assault, robbery, felony, etc., where the penalty imposed extends beyond the person's 19th birthday. In these cases, it is the prosecutor who decides whether to seek a determinate sentence, by filing a petition with a grand jury. If the petition is not approved, the prosecution would then be indeterminate. If the petition is approved, the prosecutor can negotiate a plea in exchange for changing the determinate sentence into an indeterminate one.
The juvenile can choose between the judge and the jury to decide a determinate punishment. Those juveniles who have been adjudicated, can be sentenced to probation for up to 10 years. If the juvenile crosses over to adulthood in this time period, the juvenile court judge will decide whether to transfer the case to an adult criminal court, or to terminate the probation. If a transfer is made, the adult probation department will conduct the supervision for the remainder of the term.
- The primary advantage of determinate sentencing is that, it removes any possibility of bias during the sentencing portion of the trial, regardless of whether the judge likes a person or not. So, a predetermined standard sentence is given out, no matter what the identity, race, or religion of the accused is.
- There are no factors which can influence the guidelines of the sentencing of conviction. This means that, the defendant going to trial knows about the exact consequences of pleading or being found guilty. This saves the time of the court.
- Since the consequences of these crimes are common knowledge, a person thinking about committing a crime can weigh the results of such illegal actions. This can act as a deterrent, i.e., if the determinate sentencing is harsh, a person is more likely to follow the law, rather than break it and face the consequences, due to awareness of the penalties.
- The main problem with determinate sentencing is that, there is no flexibility to the punishment. If someone makes a mistake, and is actually unaware that he/she was breaking the law, the penalty will still be the same as that for a person committing a crime on purpose. The judge is not able to consider the defendant's mental state, testimony, background, and circumstances of the crime.
- It increases the chance of being imprisoned, and does not allow an inmate to be eligible for parole, until at least 85% of the prison term has been served. This means that, overcrowding of jail and prison facilities is likely to happen.
- Determinate sentencing also costs a lot, as the expense for housing a prisoner for one year is more than what is required for the average household. Millions of dollars can be saved by instituting individual sentencing for all crimes.
- Because minimum mandatory sentences can be unfair towards the accused, the judge or jury can get tempted to circumvent their duties to help the convict from getting an excessive punishment.
- The laws of determinate sentencing are very complex, which make them difficult to understand. This can cause the judge to make errors, like imposing wrong penalties.