Indeterminate Sentencing

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

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:

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.