Implementation and Impact of "Get Tough" Sentencing Laws: The Effect of Prosecutorial Discretion

Nancy Merritt, RAND Corporation

There has been widespread implementation of "Get Tough" sentencing reforms over the past decade. These reforms generally call for increased mandatory sanctions for offenders convicted of specific legislatively defined offenses. Prior to implementation, it was widely anticipated that these laws would result in overcrowding and decreased efficiency in both the courts and prisons. However, it appears that the implementation practices adopted by local prosecutors have minimized these potential effects.

This study explores the role of the prosecutor in implementing these new laws, specifically examining the effect of prosecutorial discretion on the impact of reform. Questions addressed include:

Has passage of these new laws affected case processing and prison admission patterns? Have prosecutorial charging policies changed under these new laws? Do charging policies differ across jurisdictions? What factors affect charging decisions? What effect have the new laws had upon courtroom interactions and the balance of courtroom power?

Using arrest, case processing, prison admission, and sentencing data, the study assesses the impact of one such law, (Oregon's Measure 11). Interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators and other system stakeholders are used to determine the role of the prosecutor in implementing these reforms.

(Return to Program Resources)

Updated 05/20/2006