House votes to eliminate state sentencing commission

Friday, April 15, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Lawmakers in the Missouri House voted Thursday to repeal a law that created the Sentencing Advisory Commission, a panel that issues to judges recommendations about sentences for felonies.

The bill's sponsors, including Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, have testified that the recommendations are flawed and give misleading advice or recommend sentences too lenient for the crime. The recommendations are based on the crime's severity, an offender's records and the average sentence for the offense.

"That is supposed to be designed to help judges arrive at an appropriate sentence," Cox said. "The commission as it is has a basic flaw in the way it analyzes sentences. It's not really an average; people on the commission have stated that."

House members voted 100-57 to repeal the law, although the measure wouldn't eliminate sentencing assessment reports provided to judges by Missouri Department of Corrections Board of Probation and Parole. The commission's recommendation is just a part of the report, Cox said.

Critics of the repeal say the commission's recommendations have largely helped reduce the state's recidivism rate.

Circuit Court Judge Benjamin F. Lewis, who presides over felony cases in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties, said judges will still be able to do their job without the commission and its recommendation.

"None of that is binding on the judge, and if there's a problem about a sentence it's entirely unlikely that the sentencing commission is going to be blamed. I'm going to be blamed or whoever the sentencing judge is, is going to be blamed," Lewis said.

David Dolan, Circuit Court judge for Scott and Mississippi counties, said the recommendation is just another tool for him to use when sentencing a defendant.

"Am I going to be at a loss without them? I would say no," Dolan said. "I still have other resources in which to gather the information, but the more you have the better decision you can make."

There have been certain occasions, Lewis said, particularly with sex crimes, that a sentencing recommendation is inappropriate or too light. The formula the commission uses in forming its recommendation involves looking at how much education the offender has and if they've been previously convicted of the same crime. "Not always, but quite often, sex offenders have never been caught before, so they'll score high if they're not in the system," Lewis said. "The recommendation is offender-focused and not victim-focused."

According to the Missouri House of Representatives summary of the bill, the estimated net income on the state's general fund could total more than $81,000 for fiscal year 2012.

The legislation now heads to the Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ehevern@semissourian.com

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