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March 2, 2012

Alaska Chief Justice assails state's sentencing guidelines rules

As reported in this local article, sentencing and corrections reform is a topic of discussion in debate outside the lower 48.  The article is headlined, "Chief Justice rips state's sentencing guidelines: Juneau-based justice tell Legislature new 'smart justice' strategies are needed."  Here are excerpts:

The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court told the Alaska Legislature the state’s judges would like to be able to help them reduce prison costs and protect the public, but the Legislature won’t let them.  “Under our state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines, in place since 1978, the judge’s role in sentencing is really quite limited, the range of most sentences is prescribed by law,” Walter “Bud” Carpeneti said.

He addressed a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday, and told the legislators new studies are showing how recidivism can be reduced and keep people out of prison.  Tough early action when those on probation miss appointments or fail drug tests is just one example, he said....

Most sentences are not decided by judges, he said, but are plea bargains between prosecutors and defense attorneys.  “Judges today are rarely called on to participate in the sentencing process,” Carpeneti said.  “In the vast majority of cases they simply approve or disapprove a sentence,” he said.

While judges technically have the authority to reject a plea agreement that is rarely done. Only about 5 percent of all cases wind up without a plea bargain, he said.  “Open sentencing, where the prosecution and the defense have not agreed on the ultimate sentence in advance is quite rare,” he said.

Even in those cases, the presumptive sentences mandated by the Legislature narrow the judges’ role in the process, he said.  “Sometimes it resembles following an elaborate cookbook more than anything else,” he said.

That’s resulted in too many people in prisons when there might be better options, he said. The state’s prison population is heavily young, male and of color, and results in many people spending their formative years in prison when it would be better to have many of them in their communities.  “Too many of Alaska’s young men, particularly our young men of color, are spending their early adulthoods in our prison system,” he said....

“Today we have scientific corrections research that shows us what intervention strategies work best,” he said.  Because of presumptive sentencing rules, judges can’t use that knowledge to prevent future crimes and reduce prison costs, he said.  What the state needs, he said, is “smart justice.”

March 2, 2012 at 09:28 AM | Permalink

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Comments

the biggest change I have seen in criminal sentencing in the 39 years I've been at it, is the shift of power from judges to prosecutors in determining sentences. That shift came about as a result of a sentencing grid of mandatory minimum sentences, which basically tie a judge's hands.

bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Mar 2, 2012 5:38:06 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Alaska ban plea bargaining at one point? I think it only lasted a few years, but I seem to recall a study (possibly from the 80s?).

Posted by: Anne | Mar 4, 2012 8:21:16 PM

@Anne

It was a ban that was finessed in practice over time.

I had just transferred back to Anchorage and changed majors to Justice the year this study came out (cough, '91), still not quite done. =)

http://www.ajc.state.ak.us/reports/plea91Exec.pdf

Matthew

Posted by: Matthew Carberry | Mar 5, 2012 3:31:02 AM

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