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Research on Sentencing Reform

NCJ Number
Date Published
18 pages
In response to the many recent efforts to reform sentencing, the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice (NIJ), with support from the Office of Correctional Programs, commissioned a series of research efforts to assess some of the most prominent sentencing reforms of the 1980's and 1990's, as well as to provide guidance for future improvements in sentencing practices; this paper summarizes the results of these research efforts and offers suggestions for a sentencing research agenda based on this research.
Although researchers have focused on the issue of unwarranted disparity in achieving a system of fairness and efficiency in sentencing, many believe that the public has been more concerned with the sentencing of those offenders who have committed the most serious crimes. As violent crime increased from the late 1980's into the 1990's, substantial pressure was placed on politicians to do something about repeat and violent offenders. In response, various mandatory sentencing efforts were undertaken. Two of the most prominent in recent years have been the violent-offender-incarceration and "truth-in-sentencing" (VOI/TIS) statutes, along with various "three strikes" laws. This paper first reviews research on "three strikes" legislation, followed by an analysis of VOI/TIS research. The research on "three strikes" legislation shows that such legislation was not well supported by prior research; its development did not benefit from an understanding of the potential of using sentencing to increase prison populations and decrease crime. Even in California and Washington, where there has been some use of "three strikes," implementation of this law has been uneven and modest in numbers. The impact on crime and prison populations has been far less than expected. The RAND research on VOI/TIS legislation failed to demonstrate that such laws substantially increased the number of violent offenders in prison or resulted in longer terms served by violent offenders. These findings can best be understood in terms of the balancing of system pressures at the local level. Research on the truth-in-sentencing developments in Virginia, however, provides insight into how careful attention to the implementation of a sentencing strategy can result in achieving the goals policymakers set for sentencing reform. In Virginia, truth-in-sentencing became effective on January 1, 1995. As a result of a series of legislative and administrative actions, parole was abolished, good time allowances were significantly reduced almost to the point of being eliminated, and prison terms for violent and serious offenders were increased substantially. The overall pattern of activities following truth-in-sentencing were consistent with the goals of State criminal justice policymakers. This success in Virginia is attributed to the extent to which Virginia relied upon extensive and careful data analysis to guide the development and implementation of the statutes and policies. Some unanticipated consequences of recent sentencing reforms that may place more offenders in prison for longer periods are an increase in the inmate infraction rate and increased threats to inmates and staff, as well as inmate health issues posed by aging in prison. 20 notes

Date Published: January 1, 2001