Cunningham V. California - California's Determinate Sentencing Law

California's Determinate Sentencing Law

The primary development in sentencing law that gave rise to this case was the shift away from indeterminate sentencing and toward determinate sentencing. Under an indeterminate sentencing scheme, statutory law provides for a wide range of authorized sentences, such as "five years to life" for burglary. The power to determine the length of time a criminal actually spends in prison rests with a parole board or other prison officials, rather than with the courts. In the 1970s, California replaced its indeterminate sentencing system with a determinate sentencing scheme. In a determinate sentencing scheme, statutory law fixes authorized sentences of discrete lengths, and requires courts rather than prison officials to justify which of those discrete sentences is appropriate in any given case.

California enacted its Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL) in 1977, in the hopes of achieving greater uniformity in sentencing and ensuring that punishment was proportional to crimes. For most crimes, the DSL specifies three authorized sentences—a low term, a middle term, and a high term. The trial judge was required to impose the middle term unless there were aggravating or mitigating circumstances—facts found by the trial judge to exist by a preponderance of the evidence and which must be placed on the record in open court. A group of California judges had come up with a nonexhaustive list of aggravating and mitigating factors; judges were also free to rely on any fact reasonably related to the crime. The DSL also forbade judges to rely on any fact that was already an element of the crime in order to impose the high term.

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