Over the past thirty years, the most important sentencing development has not been the legislative adoption of mandatory guidelines, or the judicial creation of advisory guidelines, or the adoption of a wide variety of guidelines systems in the states, or the widespread elimination of parole, or the abandonment of rehabilitation as a sentencing goal. No, the most important sentencing development has been our rejection of the principal of parsimony: the notion that a sentence should be as long as - but no longer than - necessary to accomplish the goals of punishment. Instead, we have replaced parsimony with severity, which has resulted in ever longer prison sentences and a sharp increase in incarceration rates. Consider this statistic: over 2.3 million Americans, or about one in every 131 people, are currently incarcerated. As a country, we are suffering from an incarceration epidemic. Part I of this article will trace the history of that epidemic.
And yet, in the midst of this epidemic, there is evidence that the sentencing pendulum may have finally started to swing back toward moderation, as Part II of this essay will discuss. Indeed, some politicians have even begun to recognize that it is politically feasible to replace being "tough on crime" with being "smart on crime." After thirty-years of ever increasing severity, there may be reason for hope. We may finally be ready to talk sense about sentencing.