Crime and the punishments for crimes have been the subject of debates for centuries. When asked, most people would say that people who commit crimes should be punished for it in some way. When deciding however what kind of punishment should be given to the offender, is when the debate begins. The reason for the debate comes about because there are significant differences in how people view punishment and what punishments should be used for different crimes.
Most people struggle with the question of what kind of punishment is fair for the offender. In the past, people have at times been treated differently for very similar crimes, this created upset among the people who cried out for equal treatment for everyone. What those people fail to realize is that equal is not always fair. Although some degree of structure in sentencing is needed, there should be some leeway provided in order to individualize the sentence to “make the punishment fit the specific crime”.
In order to determine what is considered fair and equal punishment, the first step is to identify what punishment is. One definition of punishment is the deliberate infliction of physical harm on an offender or his property without his consent because he is an offender, but for reasons other than self-defense (Halliday, Appendix B.). In the legal system, punishment is inflicted upon an offender as a direct result of negative behaviors for the purpose of deterring future behaviors these are called sentences. Different members of society however have different ideas of what kind of punishment is fair.
What some people feel is fair and just as a particular punishment for crime, others feel is cruel and inhumane. During some eras in history, sentences for crimes were not fairly and equally handed out to all citizens. People with higher community status were sometimes given lighter or no sentences for crimes that other people were harshly punished for. Due to the differences in sentencing and an increasing crime rate, changes in the law and punishments were needed (Lehrer).In an attempt to make sentencing fair for everyone, President Ronald Reagan passed a Comprehensive Crime Control Bill on October 12, 1984 (Kaufman, 1).
Through this, “the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984” created “The United States Sentencing Commission” which developed a set of sentencing guidelines for specific crimes. These guidelines created mandatory sentencing for anyone who committed certain crimes, which took away all ability for the judge or jury to individualize sentences for individuals or for individual crimes (Kaufman, 1). Although these guidelines were developed with good intentions to provide the average and underprivileged with the same rights as the wealthy, there are other factors in crimes that were not taken into consideration.
It is a well known fact that not all crimes are created equal. Murder is obviously a more serious offense than theft and should not have the same consequences and few people would argue that the consequences should be the same. The problem of fairness becomes more of an issue when the end result of the crimes are similar. The motive or cause of the crime however might have been completely different. While it is easy to say that a punishment should be less severe for stealing jewels than for someone who takes a human life. The consequences however are the same for a person who shoplifts a CD to avoid paying for it and a person who steals a can of soup to feed a starving family. Because the end result is the same the law requires that the offenders be punished equally, but the motive in the case is quite different. The same is true when comparing a person who commits murder over a bad drug deal compared to a woman who kills her husband after years of suffering abuse.
Because the sentencing guidelines are based on the end result of the crime, motivation is not considered. Judges are required to pass sentence based on the mandatory sentence. Even over half of the Federal Judges would chose to eliminate the mandatory sentencing guidelines and 82.8 percent believe that judges would be better and more efficient at choosing the sentence for crimes (Pratt, 1). If the guidelines were eliminated or at least changed, the judges, juries or parole boards would have more freedom to take into consideration special circumstances behind the criminal behavior. This would reintroduce the possibility for some mistakes or personal preferences, but it also allows for some leniency for crimes with less criminal motivation.
The problem with mandatory guidelines has gone so far as to invade the public school system. In schools, it is called the zero-tolerance policy. This policy was introduced into most public schools after the shooting at the Columbine, Colorado high school and the increased number of school shootings that followed. This policy states that any child, who brings a weapon to school, threatens to or harms other students, or indicates hostile ideation will be punished. The punishment ranges from suspension to actual criminal charges.
The premise behind the policy is to take all threats seriously. The problem with it is that children are no longer allowed to be children. When children get angry they often threaten them, but due to the policy children are getting suspended from school and arrested for drawing pictures of guns and for using dinnerware to peel oranges for lunch (Dart, 1). These rules, like the mandatory sentence guidelines for adults takes all of the common sense and reason out of assigning consequences for various behaviors.
In January of 2005 a Supreme Court decision provided some hope for the future of fair sentencing. The court ruling declared mandatory guidelines unconstitutional (Edelstein, 1). This provides the judges a little more freedom to use desertion. The mandatory sentences are still the default sentence, but based on the circumstances surrounding the case, the judge has the right to rule outside of the guidelines if appropriate (Edelstein,1). In these cases the judge can provide lighter sentences to people whose special situations led them to commit a crime they otherwise would not have considered.
Mandatory sentences often also include parole guidelines which mandate at what point in the sentence a criminal might be eligible for parole or if parole is even an opportunity. In cases where an inmate can not ever be eligible for parole, there is very little motivation for the person to use positive behavior while incarcerated. The person in these cases have no hope of getting a reduced sentence because of merits accomplished while in prison. By providing the judges to choose the sentence, parole can be made more of an option to motivate criminals to choose rehabilitation instead of continuing to have problems during the time in prison. This would help lead to more people successfully being rehabilitated. By providing more inmates the opportunity for reduced sentences and rehabilitation, there would be significantly less of a problem with prison overcrowding.
Although the guidelines for sentencing were created to make the legal system and criminal punishments fairer for everyone, they have gone to the extreme and are now causing harm to some people. A legal system that provided special treatment for the rich and famous was wrong, but a legal system that requires horribly abused women to undergo the same sentence as a child killer is just as wrong. There should be some basic guidelines, but at the same time there should be provisions in which the motive of the crime and the background behind the crime should be taken into consideration. There is no such thing as a “cookie cutter” crime and there should not be uniform punishments to for the crimes.
Every person is individual and when an individual commits a crime, a little time needs to be taken to determine the best and most effective punishment for that crime. Some people would benefit more from community service or therapy than being put in jail. Prison in many cases proves only to harden people and makes a person less likely to be able to adequately adapt to society upon returning to it. Parents who have more than one child do not discipline all of the children in the same way for similar behaviors, because different consequences are more effective for different people. Based on this fact, the sentencing guidelines need to be re-examined and adapted to be sure that the best possible consequence is given for each individual and each offense.
Edelstein, Jonathan. “Sentence Structure” 31 August 2005
26 February, 2008. <Sentence structure (The Head Heeb)>
Dart, Andrew. “Zero Tolerance vs. Common Sense” 19 December 2008.
25, February 2008 <Zero-tolerance vs. common sense>
Lehrer, Eli. “Soft Cell”. 9 June, 2003. 25, February 2008
< AEI – Short Publications>
Pratt, Robert. “Senseless Sentencing: a Federal Judge Speaks Out”. 10 January 1999.
Des Moines Register. 25, February 2008<Pratt>
Halliday,Roy. “What Good is Punishment?” 1 January 2003. Appendix B. What good is punishment>
Kaufman, Shari. “The Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Formulaic and Impersonal Approach to Dispensing Justice”. (1999) the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Formulaic and Impersonal Approach to Dispensing Justice