Alabama Judges Don’t Use Guidelines in Sentencing Defendants, Study Shows

Tags: Criminal Defense

A recent study conducted by the Alabama Sentencing Commission found that one third of felony convicts were sentenced to more prison time than recommended by the state’s voluntary sentencing guidelines.

This is disturbing news, but not all that surprising. The guidelines were introduced in 2006 and were designed to help judges calculate a fair sentence for people convicted of a variety of crimes. Though the state didn’t make these mandatory, they encouraged judges to apply them to their cases to avoid disparate sentences for similar crimes in different jurisdictions.

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Unfortunately, despite the argument of experienced and aggressiveBirmingham Criminal Defense Lawyers, judges sometimes snub the guidelines and use their own judgment in Alabama drug crimes, property crimes and crimes against people. Public perception, media coverage and the judge’s opinion can all be outside factors that a good lawyer should attempt to weed out of the proceedings.

The commission analyzed about 7,700 worksheets that judges used in 2009 to determine whether someone should be sent to prison and for how long. Judges use the worksheets, which provide calculations based on many factors. Though judges aren’t required to use the calculations, they are bound to at least consider them.

The report shows that judges are still reluctant to use the guidelines, some five years after they were implemented. Only about half the time did judges hand down prison sentences within the guidelines. Only in 2 percent of the cases studied were defendants given sentences below the guidelines. In 17 percent of the cases, judges split sentences into prison and probation, in which one or both parts strayed outside the recommended range.

Judges were more likely to go above guidelines in property and drug cases compared to violent crimes. Property crimes would include thefts and non-violent burglaries. First-time offenders charged with thefts and drug possession usually got short sentences or probation even though the law allows a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for a person convicted of possession of a controlled substance.

Other findings:

  • 38 percent of the time in property crimes cases, judges stayed within the guidelines.
  • 46 percent of the time in drug cases, judges stayed within the guidelines.
  • 72 percent of the time in personal crimes, such as rape, assault and armed robbery, judges stayed within the guidelines.

The study suggests that the state’s overcrowded prison system — which holds twice as many prisoners as it is supposed to — may be a factor in sentencing. According to the study, 61 percent of defendants deserved prison, while 39 percent didn’t need to be incarcerated. Judges followed the out-of-prison suggestion 63 percent of the time and in-prison suggestion 81 percent of the time.

Aggressive defense lawyers are needed to point judges in the right direction when they are considering the sentence of a defendant who has been found guilty. This is as important, oftentimes, as the defense at trial. An experienced lawyer can make good arguments to convince judges to make sound decisions.

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