Indeterminate Sentencing - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2023)

An indeterminate sentence is a sentence that does not assign a set amount of jail time. For example, an indeterminate sentence specifies a range, such as “5 to 10 years,” or “15 years to life,” instead of sentencing someone to a set number of years in prison. An indeterminate sentence is the opposite of a determinate sentence, which assigns a fixed prison term to an individual convicted of a crime. To explore this concept, consider the following indeterminate sentencing definition.

Definition of Indeterminate Sentencing


  1. A prison sentence that assigns a range of jail time to an individual convicted of a crime, rather than a set amount.


1350-1400 Middle English

(Video) What is indeterminate sentencing? How it works

What is Indeterminate Sentencing

Indeterminate sentencing is the sentencing of a range of jail time to an individual convicted of a crime, such as one to three years. This is the opposite of determinate sentencing, which is the sentencing of an individual to a set amount of jail time, such as one year, or three years. However, an inmate with a determinate sentence can still be released early due to good behavior or overcrowding concerns just the same as an inmate with an indeterminate sentence.


When a prisoner is paroled, this means that he is being temporarily released from prison before the completion of his sentence upon agreeing to certain conditions. If he does not hold up his end of the agreement and violates his parole, such as committing another crime or using drugs and alcohol, then he can be returned right back to prison.

Some prisoners are released on medical parole. This is known as “compassionate release.” Another type of release, known as “supervised release,” is not the same as parole. Defendants on supervised release have already served the entirety of their prison sentences, yet they are still expected to check in afterwards. Supervised release is placed upon a prisoner in addition to his prison term, as opposed to parole, which is used as a substitute for time spent in jail.

Factors that may be considered when deciding whether to grant parole to an inmate with an indeterminate sentence include:

(Video) Indeterminate vs Determinate sentencing

  • The original recommendation by the judge and prosecutor on the case
  • The length of time the inmate has served to date
  • The inmate’s criminal history
  • Concerns about the inmate’s potential release insofar as the public’s safety
  • The inmate’s participation, or lack thereof, in rehabilitation programs or resources made available to him
  • The inmate’s behavioral history while in jail
  • Evidence that the inmate may be likely to engage in criminal activity again upon his release, such as harassing the victim(s) in his case, or using or selling drugs
  • Statements made by the inmate indicating his intention to re-offend upon his release

Indeterminate Sentencing vs. Determinate Sentencing

States that practice determinate sentencing prohibit judges from determining the length of an individual’s sentence. This is due to minimum sentences that are imposed by law and that depend on the type of crime committed. Similarly, states that practice determinate sentencing prohibit judges from straying from the penalty that is to be imposed. This means that a judge cannot offer probation or another alternative to prison if state law calls for a prison sentence to be imposed.

Pros and Cons of indeterminate Sentencing

States that follow the laws associated with indeterminate sentencing hope that by giving people the chance to participate in rehabilitation, they may be inspired to “get better” so that they can have a shot at an early release. Further, those who show more progress than other inmates may be released closer to the minimum end of their sentences, rather than at the maximum point. Prison officials tend to respond more positively to indeterminate sentences because of the incentive that it gives inmates to behave while they are incarcerated.

Of course, good behavior does not guarantee an early release. Additionally, a prisoner’s criminal history is considered by the parole board, as is the crime that landed him in jail in the first place. The victim(s) of the crime may also submit a statement with regard to whether they are comfortable with the inmate receiving an early release. Offenders are to be carefully evaluated before they are released back to the streets. However, this does not always happen, especially if they are being released due to overcrowding concerns.

As for the cons, determinate sentencing has been blamed for the increase in prison populations because it eliminates the potential for early parole. This means that parole boards are unnecessary, and inmates also do not receive credit toward early release for their participation in rehabilitation programs.

(Video) Indeterminate Sentence Law (Act No. 4103, as amended)

Conversely, however, critics of indeterminate sentencing believe that such a structure gives the parole board too much power. For example, indeterminate sentencing can potentially lead to sentences that are both discriminatory and illogical. Too often, critics claim, minorities and prisoners who don’t make the proper connections while in prison end up receiving decisions that are overly harsh from the parole board. Similarly, critics also feel that offenders who deserve to remain locked up longer end up getting out too early because of the networking they engage in while behind bars.

Types of Sentencing

There are a multitude of types of sentencing that a judge can impose upon a defendant in addition to, or instead of, a determinate or indeterminate sentence. Some examples of the different types of sentencing are provided below:

  • Concurrent sentence: A sentence that is served at the same time as another sentence. The first sentence may have been imposed previously or during the same proceeding.
  • Consecutive sentence: A sentence that is imposed upon a defendant who has been convicted of several crimes at once, or on several counts. Remaining sentences are then “tacked on” to the prior sentence so that each sentence begins as the previous one expires.
  • Interlocutory sentence: A sentence that is issued in the middle of a criminal case as a temporary order of instruction. A sentence known as a “final sentence” then concludes the case.
  • Mandatory sentence: Another way of saying “determinate sentence,” a mandatory sentence prohibits a judge from deciding on his own punishment to fit the crime. This is because the punishment has already been decided by state statute.
  • Straight sentence: This is another type of sentence that can be considered a determinate sentence because it contains neither a minimum nor maximum.

Indeterminate Sentencing Example Involving Involuntary Manslaughter

Examples of indeterminate sentencing can be found in innumerable cases within the U.S. However, one case in particular is In 2011, Rahim Lockridge, a resident of Oakland County, Michigan, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after strangling his wife, Kenyatta, to death. He was given a prison sentence of 8 to 15 years. Court documents showed that Lockridge and his wife had a history of marital strife, to the point where their children often had to come between them to get them to stop fighting. Records showed that the children were, unfortunately, witnesses to the death of their own mother at the hands of their father.

At the time of Kenyatta’s death, Lockbridge was living with her in violation of a no-contact court order, which was entered as a result of their earlier incidents of domestic violence. When Judge Nanci Grant sentenced Lockridge, she cited the couple’s history of violent incidents and trauma to the children as her reasoning for increasing Lockbridge’s minimum sentence by an additional 10 months. Specific past behavior included the infliction of serious psychological harm on the family, as well as placing several people in danger of physical injury and acting with gross negligence.

(Video) INDETERMINATE SENTENCE LAW: What it is and How to Apply and Compute!

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Lockridge’s attorneys argued that Grant “abused her discretion” by straying from the state’s sentencing guidelines. Further, the appeal argued that Grant had “violated a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court opinion” by using factors in her sentencing decision that were “not admitted or proven to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Court’s justices agreed with Lockridge’s argument but refused to alter his sentence. Justice Stephen J. Markman, one of the dissenting justices, argued that Michigan’s system of indeterminate sentencing should not be permitted to “infringe upon the authority of the jury.”

This case ultimately began a huge debate over Michigan’s sentencing law, part of which the state’s Supreme Court ultimately struck down in 2015 in an effort to give judges more discretion when imposing prison sentences. The Court found, in a 5-2 ruling, that the criminal sentencing policies that Michigan’s judges have been following for the past 16 years actually violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This ruling aimed to control the determination of minimum sentences in that it ordered judges to consider only facts that were either admitted by the defendant or found by a jury. Michigan judges were now to treat the state’s 1998 sentencing guidelines as advice, rather than the law, when determining sentences for felony cases. Up to this point, maximum sentences were set by Michigan’s state law, and judges determined minimum sentences by considering factors like prior offenses and the use of weapons to commit the crime.

(Video) 9 Indeterminate Prison Sentencing as Torture

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Probation – The release of an inmate from jail, subject to the inmate’s good behavior under supervision while out on release.


What is indeterminate sentencing and examples? ›

By contrast, an indeterminate sentence is one that consists of a range of years—for example, "20 years to life." With an indeterminate sentence, there is always a minimum term (which, again, may be lessened by credits), but the release date, if any, is uncertain.

What is indeterminate sentencing? ›

An indeterminate sentence is a type of custodial sentence that consists of a range of years (such as five to ten years) and not a fixed time, which means the convicted person's release date is left open.

What are some intermediate sentencing? ›

Intermediate sanctions, such as intensive supervision probation, financial penalties, house arrest, intermittent confinement, shock probation and incarceration, community service, electronic monitoring, and treatment are beginning to fill the gap between probation and prison.

What are the issues with indeterminate sentencing? ›

The main problem with indeterminate sentencing is that it gives a parole board ultimate authority in determining the length of prisoner's sentence (within the minimum-maximum range). The fear with this is than inmate can be subjected to discriminatory treatment by the parole board members, without any recourse.

What is an indeterminate sentence quizlet? ›

indeterminate sentencing. A model of criminal punishment that encourages rehabilitation through the use of general and relatively unspecific sentences (such as a term of imprisonment of from one to ten years.)

What is intermediate sentencing in law? ›

Intermediate sanctions are alternate sentences used to supervise offenders who are neither under the usual restrictions of probation nor incarcerated. They fall between probation and incarceration.

Which is true of indeterminate sentencing? ›

Which of the following is true of indeterminate​ sentencing? It is based on the belief that offenders will participate in their own rehabilitation if it will reduce prison time.

Why is indeterminate sentencing better? ›

Indeterminate sentencing is preferred in many jurisdictions since it incentivizes prisoners to be on good behavior, offers prisoners a chance to take advantage of the benefits of imprisonment, and the parole board can make eligibility decisions based on a defendant's criminal history.

What is an example of a determinate sentence? ›

For example, a conviction for felony sexual battery has a determinate sentencing exposure of 2, 3, or 4 years. California also has an indeterminate sentencing system. For example, the sentence for first degree murder in California which is 25 years to life.

Is a sentence of 1 to 15 years an example of an indeterminate sentence? ›

A sentence of 1 to 15 years is an example of a determinate sentence. A signature bond is usually given for minor offenses, such as minor traffic offenses, and is based on the defendant's written promise to appear in court.

When did indeterminate sentencing start? ›

The US federal prison system does not allow parole for any crimes committed after 1987. Therefore, a sentence of life imprisonment means that the prisoner will be incarcerated for life without parole. Indeterminate sentencing existed in every U.S. state from the 1930s to the mid-1970s.

What is the difference between fixed and indeterminate sentencing? ›

The judge has little discretion in sentencing and must follow the sentence guidelines determined by the law. Whereas with an indeterminate sentence, a defendant is sentenced to a range of years, but the parole board has discretion in deciding when the defendant has served their time.

Does indeterminate sentencing gives a judge more discretion when sentencing an offender? ›

Indeterminate sentencing is a system of sentencing in which a legislature establishes maximum and minimum terms for each crime and a judge makes a discretionary decision as to what the maximum and minimum sentences should be for each convicted offender.

What percentage of a sentence do you serve? ›

The general rule is that a defendant serves 50 percent of his or her sentence while in prison. (Pen. Code §2933.)

What are reasons why the criminal justice system uses intermediate sentences? ›

When non-violent offenders are sentenced to intermediate sanctions, it allows more room in prison for violent offenders. It also allows offenders to receive rehabilitation, which may reduce the risk of an offender to commit further crimes.

What are the different types of sentencing explain? ›

Types of sentences include probation, fines, short-term incarceration, suspended sentences, which only take effect if the convict fails to meet certain conditions, payment of restitution to the victim, community service, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation for minor crimes.

Does the federal system use indeterminate sentencing? ›

In 1984, Congress passed a sentencing reform measure, which abolished indeterminate sentencing at the federal level and created a determinate sentencing structure through the federal sentencing guidelines.

Why did some states abandon indeterminate sentencing? ›

The decline of popular support for rehabilitation has led most jurisdictions to abandon the concept of indeterminate sentencing. Indefinite sentences give judges discretion, within defined limits, to set a minimum and maximum sentence length.

Who determines the actual length of incarceration in an indeterminate sentence? ›

The judge's sentence is {lot the only factor that determines the length of an offender's stay in prison. The parole board often has considerable discre- tionary power in deciding when a prisoner will be released. In some States, the board can release a prisoner at any time after incarceration.

Which is better determinate or indeterminate sentencing? ›

Determinate sentencing is not as common as indeterminate sentencing. Moreover, determinate sentencing is often seen as a tougher system because of its mandatory prison time. Furthermore, determinate sentencing includes sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences, and enhanced sentences for certain crimes.

How long is a determinate sentence? ›

Offenders sentenced to determinate sentences are sentenced to a specific amount of time, such as seven years. Once the offender serves the specific time the offender is released to either parole or probation supervisor.

What are the two most common reasons for disparity in sentencing? ›

Racism and sexism

Some prison reform and prison abolition supporters have argued that race and gender are both valid reasons for disparity in sentencing.

When did indeterminate sentencing end? ›

Full-blown indeterminate sentencing existed in every American jurisdiction from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, at which point Maine and California became the first to reject core fea- tures such as parole release and the idea that probation ought to be available in nearly every case.

What is the maximum of the indeterminate sentence? ›

The rule in arriving at the maximum and minimum term of indeterminate sentence under Special law is provided in Section 1 of Act. 4103. It states that the maximum term of which shall not exceed the maximum fixed by said law and the minimum shall not be less than the minimum prescribed by the same.

What type of sentencing allows no leeway? ›

Mandatory Sentencing – A structured sentencing scheme that allows no leeway in the nature of the sentence required and mandated for specific crimes.

What does it mean when a jail sentence run concurrently? ›

A concurrent sentence refers to a type of sentence judges are able to give defendants convicted of more than one crime. Instead of serving each sentence one after another, a concurrent sentence allows the defendant to serve all of their sentences at the same time, where the longest period of time is controlling.

What is presumptive sentencing? ›


Are indeterminate sentences also known as fixed sentences? ›

Indeterminate sentences are also known as fixed sentences. The habitual offender statute is a way of selectively incapacitating felons only after they have demonstrated the inability to live by society's rules.

Who exercises the most discretion in the indeterminate sentencing decision? ›

Judges in states that have indeterminate sentencing statutes generally have more sentencing discretion than judges in states with determinate sentencing laws.

What is the difference between determinate and indeterminate sentencing please provide an example for both? ›

Some states use determinate sentencing, which means the judge sentences the offender to a specific time period, but most states use indeterminate sentencing, which is when the offender's sentence is identified as a range, rather than a specific time period. An example is one to five years.

What is the main difference between determinate and indeterminate sentencing? ›

Determinate sentencing is a criminal sentence that involves a set amount of jail time upon a criminal conviction. This differs from indeterminate sentencing, which provides a wide range of potential penalties and allows the judge leeway to hand down a sentence within that range.

Which of the following is true of indeterminate sentences? ›

Which of the following is true of indeterminate​ sentencing? It is based on the belief that offenders will participate in their own rehabilitation if it will reduce prison time.

What are the pros of indeterminate sentencing? ›

Indeterminate sentencing is preferred in many jurisdictions since it incentivizes prisoners to be on good behavior, offers prisoners a chance to take advantage of the benefits of imprisonment, and the parole board can make eligibility decisions based on a defendant's criminal history.

How do you know if something is determinate or indeterminate? ›

A statically determinate structure is one that is stable and all unknown reactive forces can be determined from the equations of equilibrium alone. A statically indeterminate structure is one that is stable but contains more unknown forces than available equations of equilibrium.

Do most states use indeterminate sentencing? ›

For example, a person can be sentenced to one to five years, but the parole board is able to review the sentence and determine when the person can be released. Determinate sentences are only recognized in a few states, while most states rely on indeterminate sentences.

What is imposition of indeterminate sentencing? ›

Indefinite imprisonment or indeterminate imprisonment is the imposition of a sentence by imprisonment with no definite period of time set during sentencing.


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