Judges express uncertainty about sentencing guidelines

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Judges, prosecutors and probation and parole officers in Missouri are awaiting instruction on the use of a new system of recommended criminal sentences, but regionally judges don't really expect sentences to be much different from what they're already handing down.

The Sentencing Advisory Commission, an 11-member commission headed by state Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, came up with the new system as the result of a bill passed by the Missouri Legislature last year. The legislation gave the commission one year from July 1, 2004, to implement the sentencing recommendations.

According to the commission, the new system of recommended sentences is designed to provide information to help the court in levying a sentence that is just, proportionate and that protects victims and society. The recommendations are based on data from actual sentencing practices of Missouri judges and the requirements of various sentencing laws, and are intended to give judges across the state an idea of the average sentences that can be handed down according to the class of the offense.

Unlike with the federal court, "judicial discretion is the cornerstone in sentencing in Missouri courts," the commission said in a news release."Sentencing in Missouri is at its best when the decision makers have accurate and timely information about the offender, the offenses and the options available for sentencing."

To area judges, the major difference will be in the paperwork that precedes a decision.

Circuit Judge John Heisserer of the 32nd Judicial Circuit, which covers Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties, said that under the new recommendations the pre-sentencing report judges usually receive will be streamlined to about a one-to-two page report from the usual six or seven pages. The new reports will include an analysis of what range of sentence the particular crime would receive based on:

statewide averages considering the impact on the victims,

severity of the offense,

risk that the offender will re-offend.

Heisserer noted that someone with a third charge of driving while intoxicated would end up in circuit court. The guidelines would aid a judge in determining whether or not to sentence the offender to a treatment program or to issue a prison sentence. A recommended sentence also may vary according to individual mitigating or aggravating circumstances, such as the impact on the victim.

That information and others covered by the new recommendations may be valuable in metropolitan areas, the judges say, but local judges pride themselves on issuing sentences based on each individual case.

"I've found that most judges sentence from their local legal culture," said Judge David Dolan of the 33rd Judicial District for Mississippi and Scott counties.

Heisserer said he tends to be tougher with his sentences than some other, less conservative judges.

"I think that's the case with most rural judges," he said. "Sentencing in this area tends to be more strict than it would be in a metropolitan area."

Sentencing recommendations would aid juries especially, Dolan said. Many juries are given guidelines about what the range of punishment should be for a given crime, but previously did not indicate how long the offender would actually serve. The new recommendations will spell that out.

Because of prison overcrowding, the expense involved with housing inmates, and the number of nonviolent offenders doing time, the commission is emphasizing alternative sentencing, which local courts have been using for several years.

"That's nothing new to us," Dolan said. "We have drug courts, we have alternative sentencing, mental health courts and DWI courts. We have all kinds of alternative sentencing going on."

"So many people in Missouri are interested in keeping the most dangerous ones in prison," said Judge William Syler of the 32nd Judicial Circuit. "Part of what they're trying to do is give some aids in sentencing so we would get a clearer record and get suggestions for alternatives to incarceration."

Community-based sentences are already in use, said Steve Unterreiner, manager of the state's probation and parole office in Cape Girardeau. Local offenders are frequently sentenced to intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, community service and regular probation.

The new system also will recommend drug or alcohol treatment or other requirements as well as a variety of 120-day prison programs for evaluation and treatment.

In formulating the new system, the commission worked with the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole. The report also incorporates suggestions from various focus groups made up of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and probation officers.

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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