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.

When a person breaks the law, they may face punishment, often called a sentence, from a judge. In the traditional system, judges had a lot of freedom in deciding the sentence. The length and type of punishment might vary greatly, depending on the judge’s views.

But what if we want sentences to be more consistent? After all, similar crimes should receive similar punishments, right? That’s where presumptive sentencing comes in.

In a presumptive sentencing system, lawmakers provide guidelines, or rules, for judges to follow when sentencing someone. These guidelines are based on the specific crime and the criminal’s past behavior. Above all, this system aims for fairness and consistency in sentencing.

How Does Presumptive Sentencing Work?

Presumptive sentencing guidelines give a recommended sentence for each crime. For instance, the guideline for a particular theft crime might be two to four years in prison. The judge then starts with this “presumptive” or suggested sentence.

The judge can adjust this sentence, but only within limits and for good reasons. For example, if the person convicted is a first-time offender, the judge might lean towards the lower end of the guideline. However, if the person has a history of criminal behavior, the judge may decide on a stricter sentence.

The idea is that similar crimes should lead to similar punishments, regardless of who the judge is. This way, neither the judge’s personal views nor their mood on a particular day should affect the sentence much.

The Impact of Presumptive Sentencing

In a presumptive sentencing system, people can expect more predictability and fairness. After all, if two people commit the same crime under similar circumstances, they should receive similar punishments, whether they’re in court A or court B.

Presumptive sentencing also provides a clearer understanding of potential consequences for those considering illegal activities. If they know the likely punishment, they may think twice before breaking the law.

On the flip side, presumptive sentencing can be seen as restricting a judge’s discretion. Some argue that it doesn’t always consider the unique circumstances of each case. For instance, a person might commit a crime under duress, meaning they were forced or pressured into it. In these cases, some believe that the judge should have the freedom to consider these factors and possibly give a lighter sentence.

The Bottom Line

All in all, presumptive sentencing is a system designed to bring consistency and predictability to the punishment phase of the criminal justice process. It’s about ensuring fairness while also maintaining a level of flexibility for unique circumstances. It’s a complex balance to strike, but one that lies at the heart of our criminal justice system.

Learn More

On Other Sites

Edwards, G., Rushin, S., & Colquitt, J. (2019). The effects of voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines. Tex. L. Rev., 98, 1.

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Last Modified: 03/13/2023


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