The Evolution of Sentencing Policy in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania


  • Courtney E. Broscious
  • Kathy S. Javian



Criminal justice reform has become an important policy area in the American states and federal government due to the extremely high rates of incarceration in the United States. In addition, high and disproportionate rates of incarceration for black people is an important civil rights issue that needs attention at all levels of the criminal justice system, from policing to parole. This case study of the mid-Atlantic states generates hypotheses for a 50-state model on one aspect of this system: sentencing policy. The mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania are similar in terms of political culture and demographics and have key differences in incarceration rates that make them good choices for a comparative case study using the “most similar systems” or “comparable cases” design. Through our case study we identify policies that we believe contribute to rising incarceration levels as well as suggest reforms. Specifically, we argue that the combination of Pennsylvania’s structured sentencing guidelines and indeterminate sentencing have contributed to high levels of incarceration that have persisted even as the push for punitiveness in the criminal justice system has diminished. These factors in conjunction with political variables should be studied further in a quantitative model of the 50 states in order to provide areas for reform.