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October 14, 2007

If you build it (guidelines) well, they (judges) will come

As this local article from Alabama highlights, sentencing judges are eager to comply with sensible sentencing regulations.  In addition, as the story documents, when sentencing guidelines are truly sensible, prosecutors often complain about them more than defense attorneys.  Here's are excerpts from the article:

Trial judges in the state surprised the Alabama Sentencing Commission by overwhelmingly making use of voluntary sentencing guidelines that went into effect a year ago.... The commission reported earlier this month that judges considered the guidelines in 86 percent of cases.

The guidelines were created to reduce prison overcrowding and give judges more options. They tighten the range of prison time for certain offenses and reduce the sentences for property crimes. To use the sentencing guidelines, judges and attorneys fill out a worksheet devised by the sentencing commission with information such as age and the number and severity of previous crimes. The worksheet helps determine the length of sentence and whether an alternate sentence, such as drug court, is appropriate. The compliance figures took into account only how many times judges used the worksheets, not how often they followed the recommendation....

Not everyone is a fan of the guidelines, including Chris Hargett, the senior assistant district attorney in Tuscaloosa. “I’ve never been sold on the idea of guidelines,” he said....  Hargett said that prisoners usually receive shorter sentences when judges use the guidelines....

One goal of the guidelines is to create equality in sentencing so people who commit the same crimes in different areas of the state spend about the same time in prison. Hargett believes that the standards, in this first year, have had the opposite effect, since not all judges are using them. “There is a greater disparity in sentencing than there was before,” he said. “This leaves me with the feeling that my victims are being shortchanged.”

But retired Judge Joseph Colquitt, a University of Alabama law professor and chairman of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, doesn’t agree. “By using the standards even more frequently than we had anticipated, the judges are helping to reduce disparity in sentencing beyond our initial expectations,” he said. “The elimination of unwarranted disparity in sentencing is a worthy goal, and one that the Alabama Sentencing Commission has identified as a principal objective.”

October 14, 2007 at 10:08 AM | Permalink

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