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Sentencing Policy

Changes in U.S. sentencing policies have been a major cause of an unprecedented prison population expansion in the past twenty years. The cost of constructing and operating prisons at a time of decreasing revenues is getting the attention of more and more elected officials who have to make the difficult budget decisions. In addition, the absence of a noticeable reduction in adult crime rates as incarceration rates have climbed raises serious questions about the efficacy of America's sentencing policies.

Sentencing policy today takes many forms. In some venues legislatures have taken authority over that policy, leaving little discretion in the sentencing of individual offenders to the judiciary. Under these  circumstances "sentencing" discretion is shifted to the prosecutors and
 takes the form of plea bargaining and charge selection. In others judges and parole boards retain wide discretion on a case-by-case basis. In still others, sentencing commissions have been given responsibility for defining how offenders are punished. Regardless of the form, sentencing policy directly affects what the correctional practitioner does on a daily basis. and to the extent that this policy fails in fairness and rationality, then our practice is adversely affected.

For that reason, we, as members of the American Correctional Association, have a vested interest in the sentencing policies which we must carry out. As implementers of these policies we have a unique vantage point form which to provide input on their effectiveness and consequences. If we do not provide that voice of our collective experience on this matter, then sentencing practices, nationwide, will fail to be as soundly based as they should be in this important public policy area.

The objectives of punishment, retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, while legitimate social goals, should be applied to the sentencing process which attempts to control crime as much as possible, at the lowest cost to taxpayers, in the least restrictive environment consistent with good public safety.

Policy Statement:

It is important for correctional professionals and their association to take an active role in voicing concerns and providing input into the establishment of sound sentencing policies. The American Correctional Association should actively promote the development of sentencing policies. Those policies should:
A. Be based on the principle of proportionality, The punishment imposed should be commensurate with the seriousness of the crime and the harm done;

B. Be impartial. Both the individual discretion exercised in sentencing and the policies that define how offenders are to be punished must be impartial with regard to race, ethnicity, gender and economic status;

C. Include a broad range of options for punishing, controlling and treating offenders;

D. Be purpose driven. Policies must be based on a clearly articulated understanding of the purposes they purport to have. They should he grounded in knowledge of the relative effectiveness of the various sanctions we impose in our attempts to achieve these purposes;

E. Encourage the evaluation of sentencing policy on an ongoing basis. The monitoring of the use of the various sanctions should be done to determine their relative effectiveness based on the purpose(s) they are intended to have. Likewise monitoring should take place to ensure that the sanctions are not applied based on race, ethnicity, gender or economic status;

F. Recognize that the criminal sentence must be based on multiple criteria. Consideration should be given to such factors as the harm done to the victim, the past criminal history, the need to protect the public, and the opportunity to provide programs for offenders as a means of reducing the risk for future crime;

G. Allow for recognition of individual case differences. Sentencing policy should provide the framework to guide and control discretion according to established criteria and within appropriate limits but must allow for tailoring of sentences within those limits to fit each case presented to the court;

H. Have as a major purpose restorative justice - - righting the harm done to the victim and the community. The restorative focus should be both process and substantively oriented. The victim or their representative should be included in the justice process. The sentencing procedure should address the needs of the victim including their need to be heard and as much as possible to be and feel restored to whole again;

I. Community based programs should be utilized for those offenders who, consistent with public safety, can be retained there; and

J. Be linked to the resources needed to implement the policy. The consequential cost of various sanctions should be assessed. Sentencing policy should not be enacted without the benefit of a fiscal impact analysis. Resource allocations should be linked to sentencing policy so as to ensure adequate funding of all sanctions including total confinement and the broad range of intermediate sanction and community base programs needed to implement those policies.

Last Updated: 02/03/2010 10:36 PM
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