- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — State sentencing guidelines virtually erase discrimination in criminal punishments, regardless of how much judges are allowed to deviate from recommended prison terms, according to a study released today.

The National Center for State Courts examined significantly different guidelines in three states: Virginia, where the guidelines are voluntary; Michigan, which offers some judicial discretion and Minnesota, which has the most mandatory system of the three.

The study concluded that the guidelines in each of those states result in consistent sentences that generally are not influenced by race and economic status. Wiping out racial discrimination was the major goal of a sentencing guidelines movement that began in the 1970s.

“These findings stand in marked contrast to the inconsistent and discriminatory sentencing practices documented in all three states prior to the implementation of guidelines,” the researchers wrote.

The study was released at a National Governors Association retreat on sentencing and prison issues in Jacksonville, Fla.

At least 20 states and the District of Columbia use guidelines that consider the nature of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia were studied because their guidelines allow varying degrees of judicial discretion.

“No matter what form the guidelines took, they seemed to eliminate any measurable discrimination,” Michigan State University political science professor Charles W. Ostrom, one of the report’s four authors, said in a telephone interview.

He said that finding was particularly surprising in Virginia.

“The voluntary nature of the Virginia guidelines do not preclude it from having real positive effects,” Ostrom said. “We thought it would not compare favorably to Michigan and Minnesota.”

Isabel Gomez, executive director of the Minnesota Sentencing Commission, said she had not seen the report but was pleased with its results. She blamed the overrepresentation of blacks in her state’s prisons on social factors.

“In Minnesota, there’s a widely held belief the guidelines have failed because they haven’t reduced racial disparity,” Gomez said. “The fact is, it would be worse if not for the guidelines.”

Guidelines — particularly the more mandatory ones — also improve consistency and predictability, which helps state policymakers ensure that the prison population does not grow beyond capacity.

However, sentencing guidelines are most effective in that regard if they are overseen by an active sentencing commission, Ostrom said. Virginia and Minnesota have such commissions. Michigan abolished its commission the year after its guidelines took effect in 1999.

The study found that without a commission to adjust the guidelines, a regional disparity has developed in Michigan. Courts in the high-crime Detroit area sentence more leniently than the rest of the state, even though all courts in Michigan are operating under the same guidelines.

“A commission that saw that would take some action,” Ostrom said. “Guidelines are an evolutionary process. You put them in place and make changes as you go. Michigan does not make any. If other states are going to think about this, they need to know a well-staffed, ongoing sentencing commission is needed.”

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