Sentencing guidelines scrutinized

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:29 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two mid-Missouri researchers have found sentencing disparities across the state, and their findings have the potential to change the way offenders are sentenced.

“Harsh sentencing has increased over time, and this is expensive to the state and taxes our limited resources,” said Mara Aruguete, department chairwoman of psychology at Stephens College.

Last year, Missouri’s incarceration rate was ranked eighth in the nation by the U.S. Department of Justice; the state’s prison population has doubled in the past 10 years to more than 30,000 people.

Aruguete, along with Robert Robinson, a former professor at Lincoln University and a member of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, was contracted by the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, a group that studies sentencing statewide, to assess circuit court judges’ attitudes toward the Missouri Sentencing Guidelines.

The guidelines, a list of recommended sentences created by the commission in 1994, were meant to be used on a voluntary basis to combat disparity in sentencing for similar offenses in different areas of the state.

Robinson reported the findings to the commission, along with suggestions on increasing use of the guidelines. They proposed amending the guidelines to be more like judges’ average sentencing patterns and improving the guideline workshops.

In 2003, the commission added Robinson as a member. In 2004, the commission took the results of the research and produced the new guidelines, now called sentencing recommendations.

The new system incorporated average sentencing patterns in the state and modified the sentencing advisory report given to judges and attorneys before sentencing. It included an expanded offender risk assessment that details past offenses and provides information about the severity of the crime.

The system also emphasized alternative sentencing not involving prison time for first-time nonviolent offenders.

Michael A. Wolff, chairman of the commission and a state Supreme Court judge, said the new sentencing recommendations are an improvement.

“The changes we made are dramatic,” he said. “They take many more factors into account and help provide information in a uniform format for everyone who will be using them.”

Still, Wolff said, the new system has not had time to prove its effectiveness. “In about a year, we’ll be able to get hard data on whether it works or not,” he said.

Kim Green, executive director of the commission, agreed that the new system needs time. “Recommendations are so new that most judges are still becoming acquainted with them,” Green said.

To help the judges better understand the recommendations, regional workshops around the state are planned for late April and early May in which judges, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, public defenders and defense attorneys may participate.

“I think a lack of communication has been a problem in the past,” Green said. “The workshops are open to all the players involved in the courts. We have to educate them and give them all the information they need.”

Two years ago, Aruguete and Robinson sent all Missouri circuit court judges a questionnaire, which asked them to evaluate the guidelines and, if they had attended a guideline workshop, to assess its effectiveness.

In addition, they were asked to rank the top five factors used in their sentencing decisions. The questionnaire also contained 10 hypothetical sentencing situations, with five sample sentences for judges to choose from.

The study found that although most judges felt positive about the guidelines, they rarely used them while sentencing the hypothetical cases. In the simulation exercise, judges picked the standard guideline sentence only 34 percent of the time, tending to choose more severe sentences than recommended, especially in cases involving drugs.

Overall, judges from larger cities were more lenient than small town or rural judges.

Attending a guideline workshop made no significant difference in judges’ use of the guidelines.

Despite support for the guidelines, sentences remained inconsistent throughout the state.

Aruguete mentioned judges’ hesitation in using the guidelines. They are trained to treat cases individually, she said, and do not want a book telling them what to do.

“They see the guidelines and think, ‘A clerk can look up a sentence,’” she said. “Plus, they argue each case is unique.”

In the questionnaire, one judge commented that “imposing a criminal sentence is a challenging job. People’s lives do not fit neatly into categories/ columns/ranges desired by number crunchers.”

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