Study Document

Determinate Versus Indeterminate Sentencing Policies Capstone Project

Pages:4 (1299 words)



Topic:Criminal Justice

Document Type:Capstone Project



Indeterminate sentencing laws allow judges to give convicted felons a window of time rather a specific sentence length. With indeterminate sentencing, the judge provides a minimum and a maximum but defers authority regarding when a prisoner is released (or when probation ends) to other members of the criminal justice system such as parole board members and probation officers. Determinate sentencing is just the opposite: a procedure in which the trial judge does sentence an offender to a specific length of time. Both determinate and indeterminate sentencing have been commonly practiced in the United States, and each of these policies has strengths and drawbacks. While indeterminate sentencing can be helpful in cases where an inmate shows certain signs of rehabilitation, determinate sentencing can be deemed more fair overall.

Pros of Indeterminate Sentencing

Indeterminate sentencing has been hailed for its potential usefulness in promoting rehabilitative models in criminal justice. With an indeterminate sentence, the parole board exercises discretion based on multiple factors such as good conduct exhibited while the offender serves time in prison. An indeterminate sentence is flexible, permitting the parole board to consider factors like whether the person has been pursuing personal and career development, as well as their standing in the community, family status, and the nature of the crimes committed. Another reason why indeterminate sentencing may be used in some jurisdictions is to promote the principle of individualization: which allows each offender to be treated differently according to the professional discretion exercised by probation officers, judges, parole boards, and corrections officers (Tonry, 1999). Therefore, indeterminate sentencing works well from the perspective of criminal justice professionals. Rather than relying on a single decision made by one trial judge, the system operates as a whole with a diversity of opinion governing the outcome of any given sentence. This way, indeterminate sentencing could potentially reduce some forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system by introducing more variables into the decision-making process. Indeterminate sentencing also potentially offers states the chance to reduce prison overcrowding by releasing prisoners for good behavior or good time.

Cons of Indeterminate Sentencing

Unfortunately, indeterminate sentencing does not always work well in practice. It is presumed that with indeterminate sentencing, “those who show the most progress will be paroled closer to the minimum term than those who do not,” but in practice this may not be the case (Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, n.d., p. 1). As O’Hear (2011) points out, delaying a prisoner’s release within the indeterminate range is frequently used as a “retributive response,” whereas parole or early release is issued in an “ad hoc” manner (p. 1247). In other words, discrimination and personal bias might cause corrections officers and parole boards to make decisions out of spite or malice rather than on objective…

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…regularly such as probation and corrections officers. When conjoined with mandatory minimum laws, determinate sentencing also prevents even the trial judges from exercising discretion. Judges in states with mandatory minimum laws must issue the determinate sentence in accordance with law, and cannot consider leniency—a con for those who believe in rehabilitation but a pro for those who prefer punitive policies.

Examples of Determinate Sentencing

Determinate sentencing is often used in cases involving violent crimes. In 2020, a woman in West Virginia was given a determinate sentence of 15 years, with no possibility of parole (Baker, 2020). Age can be a deciding factor when a judge issues a determinate sentence, as in the case of the murder of veteran Andrew Harper (Gant & Hussain, 2020). In the Harper case, a determinate sentence was used due to the severity of the crime and also to the status of the victim.


Both determinate and indeterminate sentencing policies have been used throughout American history, and are used to varying degrees in different states. In fact, ”there is no such thing as a purely indeterminate sentencing system in which the full duration of a prison sentence is left to the discretion of a parole board. Nor can a pure determinate sentencing system be found,” (Rhine, Watts & Reitz, 2018, p. 1). Blends of the two are far more common, showcasing the nuances of the criminal…

Sample Source(s) Used


Allen, J. (2016). CU rape case sparks debate over Colorado’s indeterminate sentencing law. The Denver Channel. Retrieved from:

Baker, J. (2020, Aug 10). Davis sentenced to 15 years in 2017 Wheeling hotel killing. WTOV. Retrieved from:

Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute (n.d.). Indeterminate sentence. Retrieved from:

Gant, J. & Hussain, D. (2020, 5 Aug). Hero PC Andrew Harper’s mother slams ‘unduly lenient sentences for her son’s killers. Daily Mail. Retrieved from:

Green, S.J. (2020, Aug 6). Brothers sentenced to 40 years in prison for 2016 shooting at Seattle homeless encampment. Bakersfield. Retrieved from:

O’Hear, M.M. (2011). Beyond rehabilitation. 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1247 (2011).

Puzauskas, K. & Morrow, K. (2018). No indeterminate sentencing without parole. 44 Ohio N.U. L. Rev. 263 (2018).

Rhine, E.E., Watts, A. & Reitz, K.R. (2018). Parole boards within indeterminate and determinate sentencing structures. Robina Institute of Law and Criminal Justice. Retrieved from:

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