American Judges Association


Date of this Version

December 2004


Published in Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, 40:3-4 (2004), pp. 16-25. Copyright © 2004 National Center for State Courts. Used by permission. Online at


In February, 2004, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski directed a newly created “Public Safety Review Steering Committee” to “look at our public safety system from beginning to end” and to develop “strategies to make the system stronger” wherever it does not sufficiently protect Oregonians. In common with many states, Oregon long ago adopted a modification of the penal code to declare crime reduction among the purposes of sentencing. And in common with many states, Oregon has adopted a sentencing guidelines model that roughly directs sentencing to reflect crime seriousness, criminal history, and prison resources—largely or entirely ignoring crime reduction. Apparently in common with all English-speaking and European criminal justice systems, Oregon’s criminal justice system thus exhibits a profound dysfunction: The successful culmination of most combined law enforcement and prosecution activity is a conviction followed by a sentence in a criminal case. Yet, most sentences imposed on most offenders fail to prevent future criminal behavior by the sentenced offender; most sentencing does not even expressly attempt crime reduction.
The participants in Public Safety Review Steering Committee represented the typical range of diverse and strongly held views as to the purposes, failures and successes of criminal justice. They held opposing positions as to mandatory minimum sentences, the viability of general deterrence, and the division of sentencing responsibilities between the judicial and the legislative functions (whether the latter is exercised by the people directly through ballot measures or by the legislature). My views on such matters are quite independent of the propositions asserted in this paper. The only debate we really need to resolve before making real progress is already decided by Oregon law, and by the expectations of most citizens in all states: crime reduction is a major purpose of sentencing. Notions to the contrary are dangerously wrong, however motivated.

All rational and informed participants and observers should agree:
• Whatever the importance of other components of sentencing, crime reduction is a major purpose.
• Our actual accomplishment of crime reduction falls profoundly short of our proclamations and of our potential.
• To improve our crime reduction impact, we must change the behaviors of those involved in producing sentencing decisions.
• To succeed, we must pursue strategies to focus criminal justice participants on responsible, informed, competent, and effective pursuit of crime reduction through sentencing decisions.

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