Sentencing Policy

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/5263.htm)

Control over sentencing policy creates a tension between government and the judiciary.  A government that wants to be seen as being "tough on crime" wants to impose stiff mandatory sentences, which can create three problems:

·      Sentences for some crimes become disproportionate compared to other crimes.

·      The penal system becomes overloaded, with rising prison populations.  America has more than 1% of its population behind bars, for example.[1]

·      The circumstances of particular cases cannot be taken into account, leading to some absurdities – as was the case when California’s “three strikes” law resulted in a 25-year sentence for shoplifting.[2]

It is hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that politicians' need for short-term popularity makes them unsuited to controlling sentencing.  Judges can be respected and be accepted without being popular, if they are able to explain their decisions.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] A 2008 University of Michigan report on the American prison population as a “national crisis” was summarised in an article that was available in May 2014 at http://www.physorg.com/news126279826.html.

[2] One of many articles on the three strikes law was available in May 2014 at http://www.threestrikes.org/sfchronicle_0.html.