Upholding equality in the justice system generally involves aligning outcomes and eliminating random, geographic and ethnic-based disparities. Achieving this equality has been a dominant concern in criminal sentencing with lawmakers and researchers prioritizing the need to treat criminal defendants equally. Issues surrounding equality are often underpinned by questions on who decides sentences, the approaches they use to sentence someone and the aims of these decisions. One type of punishments that may be imposed on an offender is the determinate sentence, which ensures that the offender has no chance of getting a lesser prison term than the one prescribed in the ruling. Even if a judge reconsiders his verdict, he cannot opt to give the criminal a less severe punishment. Additionally, the judge does not have the option to consider modifying circumstances in a way that would reduce the defendant's answerability. With that in mind, the following paragraphs try to explore how determinate sentences thwart efforts to achieve equality of punishment within the criminal justice system.
Before going deep into the negative implications that determinate sentencing imposes on the accomplishment of equality, it is prudent to briefly highlight the stages involved in the criminal justice process. According to Whitman (2009), these stages or decision points, from the first to the last, include legislative criminalization, investigation, apprehension, detention, charging, pre-trial, trial, sentencing, executing the jail term and terminating the sentence. To espouse equality, all officials involved in each of the above decision points must employ some degree of discretion in deciding the fate of a suspected felon. Any measures that regulate this discretion at any stage within the justice system heightens the possibility of making prejudiced and biased decisions at the sentencing stage thus resulting in inequalities in the punishments enforced on defendants (Whitman 2009).
Determinate sentencing is, arguably, an effort to restrict the freedom of choice of American juries by shifting the application of discretion to a previous decision point. For instance, if a magistrate is compelled to impose a lengthy mandatory punishment on an offender, the discretion to decide on appropriate charges may be exercised by a prosecutor. In such a case, the prosecutor may attempt to shield the suspect by going for a less stringent ruling. For that reason, such prosecutorial verdicts, which are common scenarios in the determinate sentencing movement, undoubtedly frustrate the accomplishment of equality in justice (Whitman 2009).
Muhlhausen (2010) voices another concern that most of the mandatory minimum punishment laws in the US contradict the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In fighting crime, criminal sanctions are supposed to meet four objectives, which include rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution and deterrence. Ideally, a just ruling should aim at balancing these objectives. Determinate sentencing that advocates for long incarceration for serious felonies is only reasonable when viewed from the policy of retribution (Muhlhausen 2010). Some criminal acts are so atrocious that lawmakers have an obligation to enact punishment floors that eradicate fines and probations.
Furthermore, proponents of determinate sentencing approach may argue that an obligatory minimum prison term will reduce variations in ruling when applied even-handedly. Reforms that espoused determinacy originally focused on ameliorating fundamental punishment equity and treat lawbreakers honestly with regards to the duration of their sentences (Goodstein et al. 1984). However, determinate rulings have insignificant effects on prisoners' adjustment and the rehabilitative environment in general (Goodstein et al. 1984). Muhlhausen (2010) supports the above refutation by stating that such rulings are principally redundant at best and detrimental at worst. The "no escape" element in determinate sentencing creates potential injustices in certain lawsuits. For example, high-level drug criminals are likely to benefit more than low-level drug criminals from the substantial assistance provision in the mandatory minimum sentences laws since they have more information to share with the district attorneys owing to the depth of their crimes (Muhlhausen 2010).
On a slightly different note, Tiede (2009) studied the effectiveness of determinacy in curbing discrepancies in the legal outcomes. Surprisingly, this study showed that when magistrates' judgments are controlled by the Sentencing Guideline table ranges, jail terms become protracted while the wrongdoers within the same Guideline range are likely to be treated equally. In a nutshell, offenders are subjected to more severe punishments but the variations in sentences across the Guideline range are less significant than in situations when jurors opt to depart. Nonetheless, if the rulings are analyzed collectively across all departure groups and circuits, significant disparities in the sentencing outcomes are observed. This finding indicates that the enactment of determinate sentencing was unable to effectively eliminate inequities in all areas contrary to the expectation that it would treat defendants justly across all circuits to offset the inconsistencies brought about by the judges' decisions to depart.
From the assessment above, it has been noted that determinate sentencing was initially introduced to enhancing equality in retribution and treat felons fairly. With regards to the Sentencing Guideline table ranges, the above rationale behind exercising determinacy is largely valid. However, across various Guideline ranges, the disparities in sentencing outcomes become more pronounced. Besides, limiting the judges' discretion in making rulings shifts much of the judicial duty to the prosecutors. While they are aware of the mandatory minimum sentences, the prosecutors may unjustly suggest a lesser punishment to protect specific defendants. Such prosecutorial charges exacerbate the possibility of biases in certain court cases. Culprits in high-profile cases are likely to benefit from the substantial assistance provision more than those in low-profile cases. These issues essentially explain why determinacy in the criminal justice system has failed to foster equality in punishments imposed on suspected criminals.
Goodstein, Lynne., Hepburn, John R., Kramer, John H., and MacKenzie, Doris L. 1984. Determinate Sentencing and the Correctional Process: A Study of the Implementation and Impact of Sentencing Reform in Three States: Executive Summary. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice.
Muhlhausen, David. 2018. "Theories of Punishment And Mandatory Minimum Sentences." The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved October 14, 2018 (https://www.heritage.org/testimony/theories-punishment-and-mandatory-minimum-sentences).
Tiede, Lydia B. 2009. The impact of the federal sentencing guidelines and reform: A comparative analysis. Justice System Journal, 30(1), 34-49.
Whitman, James Q. 2009. Equality in criminal law: The two divergent western roads. Journal of Legal Analysis, 1(1), 119-165.
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