presumptive sentencing | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Courts

Presumptive sentencing is a system of criminal sentencing that establishes a standard or recommended sentence for certain crimes but allows judges to deviate from that standard under certain circumstances.

Presumptive sentencing is a departure from traditional indeterminate sentencing, which gives judges wide discretion in setting sentences within a range of minimum and maximum terms. Under a presumptive sentencing system, the legislature sets a specific sentence or sentencing range for certain crimes, with the idea that similar offenses should receive similar punishments. The sentence or range is referred to as the presumptive sentence.

In a presumptive sentencing system, judges are generally required to impose the presumptive sentence unless they find specific reasons to depart from it. These reasons might include factors such as the defendant’s criminal history, the severity of the offense, the defendant’s level of culpability, or other relevant factors. The idea is to ensure that sentences are fair, consistent, and proportional to the crime committed.

Presumptive sentencing has been implemented in various forms in a number of jurisdictions. In some states, presumptive sentencing guidelines are advisory, meaning that judges may deviate from them as they see fit, but they must explain their reasons for doing so. In other states, presumptive sentencing guidelines are mandatory, meaning that judges must impose the recommended sentence unless there are specific reasons to depart from it.

One criticism of presumptive sentencing is that it can be inflexible and may not take into account the unique circumstances of each case. For example, a defendant who committed a crime in self-defense may be subject to the same presumptive sentence as a defendant who committed the same crime with premeditation and malice. This can lead to unjust or disproportionate sentences.

Another criticism is that presumptive sentencing can limit judicial discretion and undermine the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. When the legislature sets specific sentences for certain crimes, it can limit the ability of judges to consider individual circumstances and tailor sentences to fit the needs of the particular case.

Despite these criticisms, presumptive sentencing remains a popular approach to criminal sentencing in many jurisdictions. It is seen as a way to promote fairness and consistency in sentencing while still allowing judges some discretion to depart from the recommended sentence when appropriate.

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Last Modified: 03/13/2023


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