Criminal Sentencing Decisions within the American Judicial System Abstract
A major issue in criminal justice is sentencing. America’s court system has struggled to balance competing goals and policies in regards to criminal sentencing. This paper explores the ideas behind changes made to the sentencing policies with the United States judicial system. It begins with an overview of the goals behind criminal sentencing. This paper concludes with a discussion on the current status and disparities involving criminal sentencing.
In The Limits of Criminal Sanction, Herbert Packer said that criminal punishment should serve two purposes; “deserved infliction of suffering on evil doers” and “the prevention of crime” (Packer, 1968, pp. 36-37). Punishment of offenders in the United States is delivered through criminal sentencing. Sentencing is defined as “the imposition of a criminal sanction by a judicial authority” (Seiter, 2008, p. 40) When examining criminal sentencing, one must first understand the basic theories associated with the punishments given to criminals. There are five main goals/theories behind criminal sentencing; punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Historically, punishment has been the most dominant goal in criminal sentencing. Punishment, as Herbert Packer described, emphasizes the infliction of pain or suffering. In the United States, we believe punishment is necessary to maintain order and show fairness to those who do not violate the rules and laws we live by. Punishment is used on many different levels. We use it from the basics to teach children right from wrong, and we use it as a means to deal with societies most despicable offenders. Punishment in this sense also serves as retribution. Retribution is the idea that someone should be punished based on what they did. Often described using the adage “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, retribution relies on the principle of just deserts. This principle holds that “the severity of the punishment must be in proportion to the severity of the crime” (Gaines & Miller, 2010, p. 257).
The threat of punishment serves the second theory of criminal sentencing, deterrence. Deterrence is the second reason for punishment described by Packer. Punishments are used to prevent future crimes by assuming that potential criminals will weigh the benefits of a criminal act versus the costs of the punishment associated with such act. Given the unpleasantness of prison life and the negative social stigma associated with incarceration, these sentences or punishments should serve as deterrents to later criminal behavior. This is not always the case, specifically in juveniles or the mentally handicap who are unaware or unable to understand the consequences behind their actions. Deterrence relies heavily on the classical school of thought in criminal justice. This school of thought posed that people make choices based on free will and rational thinking. Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of the classical school, created the idea of utilitarianism. Under utilitarianism, also known as hedonistic calculus, Bentham proposed that any behavior holds value to the person undertaking it based on the amount of pain or pleasure it is expected to produce. In keeping with the classical idea of people being rational, Bentham believed that people would weigh their decisions based on the amount of pain or pleasure the consequence would bring to them. Therefore, when it came to punishment, the more severe the punishment, the more likely people are to avoid the crime. Bentham also felt that punishment was strictly used as deterrence. According to Bentham, “the evils of punishment must…be made to exceed the advantage of the offense” (Schmalleger, 2009, p. 134). He felt that the government should use pain and pleasure as the instruments in which to control crime because, simply put, all humans...
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