|Alabama judges following prison sentence guidelines half the time|
Mobile Press Register
July 17, 2011
MOBILE, Alabama -- One-third of felony convicts in a recent Alabama study were sentenced by a judge to more prison time than recommended by the state’s voluntary sentencing guidelines.
The Alabama Sentencing Commission analyzed about 7,700 worksheets that judges used in 2009 to determine whether someone should be sent to prison and for how long. Judges are required to consider sentencing guidelines but aren’t bound to use them.
The report shows that judges across Alabama are, in some cases, still reluctant to use the guidelines, which were introduced in 2006.
They were created to eliminate sentencing disparities and prevent defendants from receiving widely different prison terms for the same crimes because they appear before different judges.
Judges in the study handed down prison sentences that were within the guidelines about half the time. One-third of the sentences were longer. Only 2 percent fell below.
Another 17 percent were split sentences of prison and probation time in which one or both parts strayed outside the recommended range.
The goal is that judges will follow the guidelines in 75 percent of cases, according to Bennet Wright, commission executive director.
Judges were more likely to go beyond the guidelines in property and drug cases compared to more violent crimes, the report shows.
The guidelines often suggest shorter sentences or probation for non-violent crimes like thefts and drug possession, especially for first-time offenders.
For example, state law gives judges the authority to sentence a person convicted of possession of a controlled substance up to 10 years in prison. Under the guidelines, a first-time offender should get probation.
For property crimes, judges stayed within the guidelines 38 percent of the time. For drug crimes, judges stayed within the guidelines 46 percent of the time.
That’s compared to personal crimes — including rape, assault and armed robbery — in which judges stayed within the guidelines 72 percent of the time.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said lawyers in her office will complete the sentencing worksheets at a judge’s request, “but we are not going by the guidelines in making our recommendation” for years in prison.
She said that many convicts are gaining early release on parole, which means that a sentence suggested by the guidelines will, in reality, be much shorter.
“We don’t believe in the guidelines unless there’s truth in sentencing,” Rich said.
The Press-Register reported last week that the Alabama Sentencing Commission is developing a truth in sentencing plan that would likely eliminate early parole and determine exactly how much time prisoners spend behind bars.
It will prove to be a challenge in the face of massive overcrowding in the state’s prison system. The system holds nearly twice as many inmates as it was designed to house.
The study also looked at how judges used the guidelines in determining whether someone is sentenced to prison or is sent to an alternative, out-of-prison program such as probation.
For all 7,700 cases, the guidelines recommended that 61 percent of the defendants deserved prison, while another 39 percent didn’t need to be incarcerated, according to the study.
Judges followed the in-prison suggestion 81 percent of the time. They followed the out-of-prison suggestion 63 percent of the time.
Mobile County Circuit Judge John Lockett said that for some property and drug crimes, a defendant who is sentenced to three years or less is being released almost immediately — “as quickly as they can be processed.”
He said that’s frustrating because judges are elected to use their own judgment. Not every case is the same, he said, and if he’s sending someone to prison, it’s for a good reason.
He said he uses the guidelines mostly for property and drug crimes, and he tends to impose harsher sentences for violent crimes.