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Fifty Years of American Sentencing Reform: Nine Lessons
Crime and Justice  (IF4.474),  Pub Date : 2019-05-01, DOI: 10.1086/701798
Michael Tonry

Efforts to standardize sentences and eliminate disparities in a state or the federal system cannot succeed; distinctive practices and norms, diverse local cultures, and practical and political needs of officials and agencies assure major local differences in sentencing practice. Presumptive sentencing guidelines developed by sentencing commissions, however, are the most effective means to improve consistency, reduce disparity, and control corrections spending. Federal sentencing guidelines have been remarkably unsuccessful; they should be rebuilt from the ground up. Mandatory sentencing laws should be repealed, and no new ones enacted; they produce countless injustices, encourage cynical circumventions, and seldom achieve demonstrable reductions in crime. Black and Hispanic defendants are more likely than whites and Asians to be sentenced to imprisonment, and for longer; presumptive sentencing guidelines reduced racial disparities initially and over time, but most states do not have presumptive guidelines. Use of predictions of dangerousness to determine who is imprisoned and for how long is unjust; predictive accuracy has improved little in 50 years and current methods too often lengthen prison terms of people who would not have committed violent crimes. Except in the handful of states that have effective systems of presumptive sentencing guidelines, parole release is an essential component of a just and cost-effective sentencing system in the United States.