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Copyright (c) 2006 The University of Chicago
Crime and Justice

ARTICLE: Purposes and Functions of Sentencing


34 Crime & Just. 1


Michael Tonry


Sentencing policy in the United States has fragmented. There is no overriding theory or model. There are no widely shared understandings about what sentencing can or should accomplish or about conceptions of justice it should incorporate or reflect. Painting with a broad brush, utilitarian ideas held sway in the United States from 1900 through the mid-1970s (evidenced most strongly by indeterminate sentencing and extensive parole release), followed in succession by retributive ideas (evidenced most strongly by desert-based guidelines systems in Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington) in the 1970s and 1980s, deterrent ideas (evidenced most strongly by federal and state mandatory minimum sentence and truth-in-sentencing laws) in the 1980s, incapacitative ideas (evidenced most strongly by three-strikes, dangerous offender/sexual psychopath, and sex offender registration and notification laws) in the 1990s, and a muddle in the early years of the twenty-first century. The muddle is exemplified by greatly reinvigorated interest in rehabilitative programs, such as drug, mental health, and domestic violence courts, reentry programs, and a plethora of new community-based and institutional treatment programs, combined with the continuing operation of laws enacted in all the earlier periods but especially the 1980s and 1990s. Ideas about restorative and community justice and therapeutic jurisprudence percolate through many of these initiatives.

Muddles are not necessarily bad. The absence of a stifling orthodoxy and a limiting conventional wisdom allows for creativity and experimentation, both of which have been evident for a decade. In the longer term, though, new practices and prevailing views will emerge and they will ...
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