One perspective on sentencing reform in the United States

Research paper by Paul H. Robinson

Indexed on: 01 Feb '97Published on: 01 Feb '97Published in: Criminal law forum


The most difficult part of constructing a system of criminal sentencing is to be able to give a rationale for each sentence. Historically, this has been an unsurmountable hurdle because it required reformers to resolve the irresolvable conflict between utility and desert as sentencing goals and to measure the immeasurably complex relative utility of the alterative utilitarian strategies of deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.The good news is that we need not try to leap these insurmountable hurdles: the greatest utility is found in a desert distribution of liability and punishment. By following desert, the criminal law can establish its moral credibility with the public and thereby harness the real sources of social control—the power of social sanctions and internalized norms. In the context of criminal sentencing, this means the system must establish a reputation for giving offenders the precise amount of punishment they deserve.Despite the utilitarian importance of desert, however, nondesert concerns can govern the selection of the sanctioning method. As long as the total punitive bite of all aspects of an offender’s sentence is what the offender deserves, judges otherwise can be left free to construct the sentence they think will best avoid future crime. With a system of punishment units and punishment equivalencies, a desert-based determination of the amount of punishment can co-exist with a selection of sanctioning methods looking to nondesert, utilitarian considerations, such as the need for deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.