Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolving minimum sentences

Interesting post today on the blog Grits for Breakfast that draws attention to a proposal in Texas to reduce the prison population, thereby reducing the costs of maintaining the prison system, freeing up funds to properly pay security personnel, etc.

The key recommendation of the proposal, known as the Michigan model, is "[requiring] most prisoners to be released after serving 120% of their minimum sentence."

I think that single proposal gives an interesting look into the back-and-forth that takes place between the political elements in favor more- and less-harsh punishment. You can see a narrative, thesis-antithesis process that is taking place, like a haggling process.

In the beginning, judges handed down sentences to convicts. The legislature proscribed what sentences were appropriate, the default sentences, if you will. Eventually there developed a lot of leeway for prisoners to be released on good behavior, parole, etc. Those in favor of stricter punishments pushed back, requiring minimum prison terms. Now, there is another development, that would force prisoners to be released after a certain percentage of their minimum sentence has elapsed, shrinking again the possible window of imprisonment between minimum and maximum time to be served. Or, possibly, proscribing an exact date that has everything to do with the minimum sentence and nothing to do with the default sentence. (Comparing this latest arrangement with a time when prisoners actually served their default sentence to the day makes me scratch my head a little.) Just an interesting thought about how the concept of a sentence has evolved through so many constrictions, expansions and proscriptions.

Further reading. There's a fantastic GFB post here and an AP article here on the same subject.

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