Policies of Imprisonment: The Adoption of Determinate Sentencing and Sentencing Guidelines in the United States, 1975-2002

Donald Stemen, The Vera Institute of Justice

The indeterminate sentencing structures that dominated criminal justice systems in the United States through the 1970s fragmented over the last three decades, replaced by patchworks of determinate and structured sentencing, mandatory sentencing, and truth-in-sentencing laws. Scholars have examined these recent state-level reforms in an effort to understand their philosophical underpinnings and their impact on the criminal justice system. Yet, there remains a lack of comparative work systematically analyzing the factors that determine why certain states have adopted particular sentencing laws while others have not. This paper assesses those factors that determine the timing of the enactment and content of two sentencing laws adopted across the states between 1975 and 2002: determinate sentencing and sentencing guidelines.

Explaining those factors that determine variation in the adoption and content of policies across jurisdictions continues to challenge policy innovation scholars in political science, sociology, and economics. However, while policy innovation studies have considered innovation across a wide range of policy areas, few have focused on the adoption of criminal justice policies. Using event history analysis, this paper tests the influence of several socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors on the propensity to enact legislation, explains why some states chose to enact determinate sentencing or sentencing guidelines legislation while other did not, and examines what determines the content of that legislation. These factors will include variables identified by scholars as influencing the adoption of criminal justice policies specifically and variables identified by policy innovation scholars as determining the adoption of policies generally. While scholars continue to debate the philosophical underpinnings and effects of recent sentencing reforms, determining those state-level factors dring the initial adoption and content of particular sentencing policies is critical to understanding the fragmentation in the American approach to punishment in an era of rapid policy change and harsh approaches to sentencing.

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Updated 05/20/2006