- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

RICHMOND - State sentencing guidelines essentially erase discrimination in criminal punishments, regardless of how much judges are allowed to deviate from recommended prison terms, according to a study being 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 the guidelines in each of the states result in consistent sentences that generally are not influenced by race or 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 scheduled to be released at a National Governors Association retreat on sentencing and prison issues in Jacksonville, Fla.

At least 20 states and the District 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,” said Michigan State University political science professor Charles W. Ostrom.

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,” Mr. 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 over-representation 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,” Miss 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 policy-makers ensure 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, Mr. 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, though courts in Michigan are operating under the same guidelines.

“A commission that saw that would take some action,” Mr. 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.”

Legislation is pending in Michigan to revive the sentencing commission. The Michigan Department of Corrections supports the measure, spokesman Russ Marlan said.

He also said 25 percent of Michigan’s criminal cases land in “a large gray area” of the guidelines where defendants may or may not be sentenced to prison. The original belief was that 20 percent of defendants in that gray area would get prison time, but it’s been double that, Mr. Marlan said.

“There’s some need for adjustment,” he said. “Our incarceration rate is the highest in the Midwest, but we have not seen a resulting decrease in the crime rate.”

The study by the nonprofit, Williamsburg-based group was funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department. The report was financed by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Center on the States.

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