New sentencing format may reduce number of nonviolent criminals in state prisons

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A new pre-sentencing investigation format aims to reduce the number of non-violent criminals in prison.

On Nov. 1, Missouri will launch Sentencing Assessment Reports, which will replace all pre-sentencing formats that exist in each county. It was created by the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission and the Board of Probation and Parole after several months of work by judges, lawyers, probation officers and others in the criminal justice system.

Typical pre-sentencing investigations occur when the defendant has pleaded guilty to a felony offense. Based on their own discretion, judges can order an investigation on the defendant's history. Probation officers collect information and provide reports that assist judges in determining whether the defendant should receive a prison sentence, jail time or probation with community-based programs, such as drug and alcohol treatment and anger management treatment.

The new reports are based on actual sentencing practices of trial judges and address four basic questions that arise during sentencing decisions:

* What do judges do in similar cases?

* What resources are available to construct and impose a sentence that fits the offender and the crime?

* What is the risk that an offender will re-offend?

* What does a sentence really mean? If an offender is sentenced to prison, how much of the term will the offender serve before parole?

It considers the defendant's risk factors and scores them in criminal, work, educational and social history. The higher the number, the less likely the defendant will re-offend. Parole officers include several suggestions on sentences, although the judge is not obligated to follow the suggestions, Circuit Judge William Syler said.

Cape Girardeau County participated in a pilot program that tested the new format. The most noticeable difference is the size of the reports, Syler said. Traditional reports were 10 to 12 pages long and very detailed.

The new reports are condensed, often leaving out information not as critical to for sentences. Still, Syler prefers too much information rather than not enough, he said.

"If I don't have information on a person that I am sentencing, it's like putting a blindfold on and throwing darts," Syler said.

Prior to a sentencing, Syler said he gathers opinions from probation officers, hears victim and defendant statements and allows for the defendant's friends to vouch for character.

Probation and parole officers make sentencing recommendations based on criminal history, the severity of the offense and the risk assessment. Of the 13,000 prisoners in Missouri, nonviolent criminals dominate the prison population at 55 percent, up from 46 percent 12 years ago, according to reports. By suggesting alternative sentences, nonviolent criminals could spend less time in prison and more time in treatment.

MOSAC executive director Kim Green said the goal is to make sure there is enough space in prisons for violent and persistent criminals.

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