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Determinate Sentencing (What It Is And How It Works: Full Review)

What is Determinate Sentencing?

What is the difference with indeterminate sentencing?

What are the essential elements you should know!

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

What is a determinate sentence and how does it work!

Are you ready?

Let’s get started!

What Does Determinate Sentencing Mean

Determinate sentencing refers to a type of prison or jail sentence where the convicted offender receives a sentence for a fixed number of years that a parole board or other agency will not be able to modify or review.

In other words, a person convicted of a “determinate sentence” will be required to serve the full sentence.

For example, if a person is sentenced to serve one year in the county jail as a determinate sanction, then this person must spend one whole year behind bars.

Depending on the crime, the law will provide for the type of sentence that the judge must impose.

Generally, when a crime provides for determinate sanctions, the judge will not have much discretion when handing down a sentence and must impose what the law requires of it.

Determinate And Indeterminate Sentencing

A “determinate” sentence can be contrasted with an “indeterminate” sentence.

An indeterminate sentence is a type of sentence that provides for a range where there’s a minimum term that must be respected and the actual release date of the prisoner can be determined by a parole board.

For example, a person can be convicted of twenty years to life as a sentence.

In that case, the convicted offender must serve at least a term of twenty years and then his or her actual release date will be based on the parole board’s periodic review.

You can consider an indeterminate sentence to be a sentence referring to a range of time as opposed to a fixed period of time.

Determinate sentencing is recognized in a few states whereas indeterminate sentencing is more widespread.

Determinate Sentencing Definition

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, determinate sentencing is defined as follows:

A determinate sentence is a jail or prison sentence that has a definite length and can’t be reviewed or changed by a parole board or any other agency. 

In other words, the legal definition of determinate sentencing can be summed up as:

  • A jail or prison sentence
  • Having a fixed-length 
  • Where its length cannot be changed 

As you can see from this definition, a determinate sentence is a sentence for a “fixed” period of time.

In contrast, an indeterminate sentence is a sentence that is for a “range” of time where the minimum must be served and the inmate can be released at any point in time during the range.

Determinate Sentencing Pros and Cons

What are the pros and cons of determinate sentencing?

Determinate sentencing such as determinate life sentences or determinate prison sentences picked up momentum in the 1970s and 1980s.


The reason why it started getting some attention is that determinate sentences are generally seen as harsh sentences as the convicted criminal must serve the full term of the sentence.

The perceived advantage for society is that criminals are going to be severely punished for the crimes that they commit, on the one hand, and other criminals may be dissuaded from committing a crime, on the other hand.

Another perceived advantage is that the sentence is “fixed” and so the courts have little flexibility in modifying the sentence depending on who is being sentenced.

With a fixed sentence for a specific crime, all criminals are treated equally and receive a substantially similar sentence.


Although there are some benefits in issuing determinate sentences, there may also be some drawbacks.

One important drawback is that with a fixed sentence, the convicted individual will have less incentive to rehabilitate and adopt good behavior hoping to be released sooner.

In other words, since the prisoner does not have any prospect of being released earlier for good behavior, the prisoner will not have any meaningful reason to adopt good behavior and behave well in prison.

Another important drawback is that putting people away for a fixed period of time requires that the state and government build more prison establishments and penitentiaries to be able to meet the demand.

Currently, prisons are overcrowded and do not have the capacity to detain more and more individuals.

Examples of Determinate Sentencing

What are some examples of determinate sentencing?

One example of a determinate sentence is that a person convicted of burglary receives an automatic three-year prison term.

The reason why this is a “determinate sentence” is that the law states that if a person is found guilty of the crime of burglary, he or she must automatically receive a three-year prison sentence.

Another example is if a person receiving twenty years of imprisonment for first-degree manslaughter.

In this case, the person must absolutely serve the whole twenty years and the parole board cannot shorten the sentence in any way.

There are other laws that impose a much stricter penalty for repeat offenders.

For example, you have certain state criminal laws that require the judge to impose a minimum sentence that is double the sentence of a first-time offender or require a minimum of 25 years for a third conviction of a serious felony.

In this case, the law is designed to be “harsh” and punish the convicted felon more severely leaving less room for the judge to determine an appropriate sentence based on the sentencing guidelines.

Generally, with determinate sentences, the judge must hand down a minimum sentence leaving him or her little or no discretion in setting the terms of the sentence.

Determinate Sentencing vs Indeterminate Sentencing 

What is the difference between determinate vs indeterminate sentencing?

With indeterminate sentences, certain crimes required that the judge impose a sentence up to a maximum where the judge has the ability to choose various types of punishment most appropriate for the prisoner.

In other words, the judge could choose a sentence that may include imprisonment, probation, fines, community service, rehabilitation programs, or any other sentence that could help the convicted individual be “punished” and potentially get rehabilitated.

The main advantage of indeterminate sentencing is that the judge can impose a punishment that is sort of specific to the person in question.

As each individual reacts differently to punishment, the judge could be strict with some and more lenient with others.

With indeterminate sentencing, since the sentence is “indeterminate”, prison officials have the ability to review the prisoner’s behavior and positive improvement while in prison to release the person earlier.

The objective of indeterminate sentencing is geared to providing an “appropriate” punishment and to “rehabilitate” the offender.

On the other hand, determinate sentencing requires has the following characteristics:

  • It requires that the judge issue the sentence required by law
  • The judge has less flexibility in choosing the sentence to issue
  • The offender must serve a specific period of time in jail or prison 
  • Parole officers do not have the ability to release the inmate sooner 
  • It’s a sentence issued for crimes having a minimum sentence (also called tough crimes)

In summary, the main difference between a determinate sentence and an indeterminate sentence is the period of incarceration time a judge must issue where the first one requires a “fixed” prison sentence whereas the other gives more flexibility to the judge and the term is based on a “range”.

Determinate Sentence Takeaways 

There you have it folks!

So, what is determinate sentencing?

What are the pros and cons of determinate sentencing?

What is the difference between determinate and indeterminate sentencing?

Determinate sentencing refers to the process where the court issues a prison term for a fixed period of time to a convicted offender.

Typically, you may see a fixed sentence such as:

  • One year in prison
  • Two years in prison
  • Five years in prison 
  • Ten years in prison
  • Twenty years in prison

We can tell that this is a “determinate” sentence as the sentence does not state a range like “up to one year in prison” or “up to five years in prison”.

In most states, however, determinate sentences are not common.

Rather, the courts issue sentences that include a combination of incarceration time, probation, fines or other types of punishment that can effectively achieve its purpose of punishing and rehabilitating the offender.

The objective of determinate sentencing laws is to ensure that everyone receives the same or similar punishment for their crime and leave less room for a judge to make a sentence determination.

Let’s look at a summary of our findings.

Determinate Sentences Meaning

  • Determinate sentencing refers to the process where the court assigns a prison term to a person convicted of a crime
  • It’s called a “determinate” sentence as the prison or jail period is for a specific period of time, like “two years”, “five year”, “twenty years”
  • Determinate sentences are not widely recognized in the US states as most tend to impose indeterminate sentences
  • Indeterminate sentencing is when a person is convicted to serve a range of time, like “up to two years in prison” where the person’s sentence may potentially be shorted by the parole board for good behavior or other
Concurrent sentence
Consecutive sentence
Criminal charges 
Dangerous offender 
Deferred sentence
Double jeopardy
General deterrence 
Habitual offender 
Jury trial 
Life sentence
Mandatory sentence
Presumption of innocence 
Presumptive sentence
Sentencing disparity 
Sentencing guidelines 
Specific deterrence
Straight sentence 
Supervised release 
Suspended sentence 
Three-strikes law 
Trial lawyer
Actus reus 
Beyond reasonable doubt 
Comparative negligence
Criminal lawyer 
Criminal malpractice 
Culpable negligence 
Dangerous driving
Depraved indifference 
Felony vs misdemeanor 
Gross negligence 
Indictable offense 
Jail vs prison 
Mala prohibita 
Malice aforethought 
Medical negligence 
Mens rea
Negligence definition
Preponderance of evidence
Pure comparative negligence 
Reasonable person standard
Strict liability
Summary offense 
Vehicular manslaughter

Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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