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Why Prison Reformers Should Focus On 'Back-End' Release Decisions

“Indeterminacy” is the product of uncertainty about how much time in custody a criminal defendant serves. The uncertainty extends over many decisions, such as good-time awards or forfeitures by prison officials and release or release-denial decisions by parole boards.

To the extent these later decisions are unpredictable, the judge’s sentence is “indeterminate” on the day of sentencing, says a new report on prison release systems from the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota..

When prison sentences are highly indeterminate, many months or years of time-to-be-served can be unforeseeable in individual cases.

The greater the degree of indeterminacy, the greater the impact of "back-end decisions." Indeterminacy builds up cumulative effects over hundreds and thousands of cases.

Robina says that in systems with high degrees of indeterminacy, a substantial amount of control over prison population size is located at the back end of the system. In many states, back-end officials have more to say about prison numbers than do sentencing courts.

The report contends that for people concerned about mass incarceration, "serious attention should be paid to the prison-release frameworks at the back ends of America sentencing systems. These are varied and are often highly complex."

In each state, Robina says, it is important to consider the institutional structure for release decisions, how and by whom time-served discretion is being exercised, and possibilities for future changes in existing decision patterns.

Much of the mass incarceration debate has been focused on “front-end” decisionmakers such as courts and prosecutors. For a comprehensive slate of possible reforms, equal attention must be directed to the back end, says the new report.

Robina believes that its project "offers new conceptual tools to better understand and compare the wide range of prison-release systems across America" and "may shine a spotlight on policy options that would otherwise go unseen."


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