Perhaps the most controversial area of sentencing law and practice is fitting the punishment to the crime. Due to the enormous number and range of aggravating and mitigating circumstances that have been held to be relevant to sentencing, judges had a wide discretion in imposing punishment in any particular case (Roland, 2014). This resulted in a large amount of disparity in sentencing. The simplest solution to curbing judicial discretion was to introduce mandatory or fixed penalties. Mandatory sentences are those sentences which a judge officer is required to impose regardless of the circumstances of the offense. In other words, the judge has no discretion to impose a higher or lower sentence depending upon the nature of the crime. Most states use indeterminate sentencing. This means that judges sentence offenders to terms of imprisonment identified only as a range, rather than a specific time period. In other words, the offender is actually sentenced to one to five years. The amount of time the offender actually serves will depend on several different variables. For example, while in prison, the state parole board will hold hearings to determine when, during the range, the offender should be released.
In 2002, Gondles noted that the public believes that laws should be changed to reduce the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and at rehabilitation should be the No. 1 purpose of the justice system. In a 2010 article, Gormsen mentions that several amendments were made to allow courts to depart from sentencing guidelines when an offender’s criminal activity was related to drugs and alcohol abuse or significant mental illness, when home or community confinement would serve a treatment purpose, and allow courts to consider the effectiveness of residential treatment programs as part of their decision. Alternative sentences are sometimes offered and include different combinations of the following: a suspended sentence, probation, fines, restitution, and community service. A judge can issue a suspended sentence where he or she either refrains from handing down a sentence or decides on a sentence but refrains from carrying it out. Similar to a suspended sentence, probation releases a defendant back into the community, but he or she does not have the same level of freedom as a normal citizen. Fines are imposed to punish the offender, help compensate the state for the offense, and deter any future criminal acts. Certain offenders are not eligible for alternative sentences.
So much of our criminal justice system has been shaped by Judeo-Christian views and attitudes. Such religions choose a criminal justice system that puts justice at its core, favors alternative sentencing, especially restitution, over incarceration. The expectation is to help make victims whole, and help offenders apologize by purging themselves of sin. Jesus taught that we are of inestimable worth (Luke 12:7). All of us are worth more than our mistakes; however, there are so many people who have already made amends for their crimes find themselves stigmatized in our society and barred forever from housing and employment.