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Shift away from indeterminate sentencing would benefit families as well as prisons
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A New York commission is looking to reform the state's prison network, beginning with its sentencing practices. - photo by Omar Etman
A proposal to revamp New York state's prison sentencing system will not just save taxpayers money and restore fairness, but it will also help families of inmates cope with the social and economic impacts of having a parent behind bars.

In a proposal, the New York State Permanent Commission on Sentencing recommended the state legislature implement full determinacy in place of the current system of "indeterminate" sentencing.

No one looking at our current laws can help but be dismayed at their incoherence and complexity, the report says. Ours is a structure that cries out for reform.

The report advocates for a shift from the current mix of indeterminate and determinate sentencing to strictly determinate. A determinate sentence, of which a judge is the sole arbiter, provides a defined length of sentence and not a range (for example, three years versus two to six years.)

The change would, in theory, limit prison overpopulation because determinate sentences skew toward the low side of what would have been the indeterminate range.

Opinion among politicians and the general public on prison sentencing is evolving. There's a call for smarter punishment commensurate with the crime. A poll published in December found that 71 percent of those surveyed now favor eliminating mandatory minimums in favor of giving judges more discretion in sentencing, according to the Deseret News National Edition.

Determinate sentencing would also give relief to families of inmates "to predict with reasonable certainty the time an offender will serve, the report says.

A 2009 study by the National Health Committee, among others (see here and here and here and here), found that children of incarcerated parents suffer from anxiety, a sense of loss and responsibility for their parents situation, not to mention financial difficulties.

The effects of incarceration on families are felt postrelease, too, according to the same report. Limiting time spent in prison a byproduct of determinate sentencing would alleviate the severity of the familial burdens.

Most states are like New York, using a mix of indeterminate and determinate sentencing. If the commissions proposal is successful it has yet to find a sponsor in the legislature it will provide uniformity to a scattered system and reassurance to future inmates and their family members.