Sentencing Decisions

  • Michael R. Gottfredson
  • Don M. Gottfredson
Part of the Law, Society, and Policy book series (LSPO, volume 3)


Once convicted, the offender must be sentenced. This human decision lies at the hub of current controversies about the basic purposes of the entire criminal justice system. Indeed, recent trends in the philosophy of sentencing address issues so fundamental to criminal justice that they must be expected to have a profound impact on the entire system in the next few years.1 These tendencies toward changed conceptions of the purposes of sentencing also involve debates about the extent of discretion that ought to be allowed judges in choosing alternative sentences. In this chapter we seek to summarize these trends, to speculate about their potential implications for rationality in decision making, and to identify some of the research challenges that they present.


Criminal Justice Jury Trial Sentencing Guideline General Deterrence Prior Record 
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  1. 1.
    Portions of this section are adapted from Gottfredson (1975a). The literature on sentencing is vast and is growing rapidly. Perhaps the best account of the many issues and complexities of sentencing is Dawson (1969). A good annotated bibliography of current sentencing controversies is Ferry and Kravitz (1978).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This is an oversimplified distinction. Mueller (1977:38–58) distinguishes between “utilitarian” and “nonutilitarian” aims. By the latter he means “those aims or methods for achieving crime prevention of which it is usually said that they are not designed at all to achieve prevention—in fact, that it would amount to a perversion of high ideals to use them in a utilitarian manner” (at 38). As nonutilitarian aims he includes vindication, retribution, and penitence. Some, however, would use the concepts of desert or of punishment in a clearly utilitarian sense—for example, to prevent anomie or to affirm moral values. Weiler divides sentencing perspectives as utilitarian or neo-Kan-tian, including in the latter category those who locate morality “in adherence to principles of right, justice or fairness” (at 122).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See, for example, Hart (1968), Weiler (1974), Rawls (1971), and Feinberg (1970).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This section summarizing common sentencing draws heavily on O’Leary, Gottfredson, and Gelman, (1975). As these authors point out, various other sentencing goals not easily classified into these categories could be cited, such as penitence or control of vigilantes or personal vendettas.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Publilius Syrus, Sentential, No. 578, as cited in Stevenson (1967:1031).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    D. Webster, Argument, Salem, Massachusetts, August 3, 1830, The Murder of Capt. Joseph White. Cited in Stevenson, supra note 5 at 1036.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Plato, Laws II 934, as cited in G. Newman (1978:201).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
  9. 9.
    See, for example, von Hirsch (1976).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Aristotle, Metaphysics: On the Virtues and VicesJustice, as cited in Stevenson, (1967:1027).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Justician, Institutions, Book I, section 1, as cited in Stevenson (1967:1027).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    H. Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, Book III, ch. X (Garden City, New York: International Collector’s Library): 76, n.d.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    I. Kant, The Philosophy of Law, trans. W. Hastic (Edinburgh: T.T. Clar, 1887), as cited by Weiler (1974).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
  15. 15.
    Because several comprehensive reviews of this literature exist, including methodological critiques, a thorough review of the early research will not be undertaken here. Hagan (1974) reviewed twenty studies of sentencing to assess the contribution of socioeconomic status, race, age, and sex in disposition. He concluded: “Review of the data indicates that, while there may be evidence of differential sentencing, knowledge of extra-legal offender characteristics contributes relatively little to our ability to predict judicial dispositions” (at 379). Our focus in this book is on the adult criminal justice system, but it should be noted that a substantial body of research on the correlates of sentencing for juveniles also exists. For a review and an interesting empirical study, see Cohen and Kluegel (1978). A recent general review of this research indicates that the legal factors (seriousness of the offense and prior record) are the most powerful predictors of disposition; see Hirschi (1975).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    A study of sentencing practices in some southern states has also found that legal variables account for a greater proportion of the variation in sentencing than do extralegal variables (in particular, socioeconomic status); see Chiricos and Waldo (1975).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    See, for example, Martinson (1974); Bailey (1966); Kassebaum, Ward and Wilner (1971); Robison and Smith (1971). Contra, see Palmer (1974 and 1975). For a more recent analysis, see Sechrest, White, and Brown (1979).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Portions of this section are adapted from Goldkamp, Gottfredson, and Mitchel-Herz-feld (1981).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael R. Gottfredson
    • 1
  • Don M. Gottfredson
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Management and PolicyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.School of Criminal JusticeRutgers UniversityNewarkUSA

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