Sentencing guidelines under review

Pennsylvania is trying to develop a new way to look at criminal defendants when it comes to sentencing them, by having judges consider the risk they present to the community and the odds they will reoffend once out of prison.

“This is a statewide issue. …We are at the cutting edge,” said Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron, a member of Pennsylvania’s Sentencing Commission.

Blair is one of four counties in the state selected to help develop risk assessment as a tool that can be used in sentencing defendants. The others are Westmoreland, Allegheny and Philadelphia.

At one time, judges handed down sentences based on their gut feeling. That method went out the window with the state legislature passing sentencing enhancements because sentences, in some cases, weren’t considered tough enough. For instance, judges must impose longer sentences on drug dealers based on the weight of the drugs they distributed or proximity to schools and playgrounds – if the prosecution requests the enhancements.

Judges also have standard range guidelines they must follow. If they impose sentences above or below the standard range, they must give reasons why.

Milliron said the Pennsylvania General Assembly gave the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, based at Penn State, the task of developing a risk assessment analysis based on “objective data.”

Cynthia Kempinen, deputy director and research director for the commission, said the project has been under way for two years. It involves a study of 40,000 sentences imposed in the state from 2004 to 2006, and then a determination of how many of those defendants returned to the system in the ensuing years.

Kempinen said that the study is taking a look at such factors as age, gender, county, prior arrests (as opposed to convictions), prior drug offenses, prior arrests for property crimes, current offense and the gravity score of the individual, based on his criminal history.

Gravity scores range from zero to 5, based on convictions.

A scale of 14 levels is to be prepared, giving a judge an “additional tool” to use in sentencing, Kempinen said.

According to Milliron, the four counties involved will form focus groups to discuss the new tool and try it out.

Like Milliron, judges from those counties are members of the sentencing commission. They include Judge Rita Donovan Hathaway from Westmoreland, Judge Jill E. Rangos of Allegheny and Judge Sheila A. Woods-Skipper of Philadelphia.

Two weeks ago, those in Blair County’s focus group met with sentencing commission personnel to talk about the project.

Blair was represented by Judge Elizabeth Doyle; District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio; the director of the juvenile probation office, Nancy Williams; her chief deputy, Jon Frank; Assistant Public Defender Joe Hartye; and Pat Gates and Christine Waite from the Adult Parole and Probation Office.

Milliron said within the next 60 days, representatives of the sentencing commission will visit Blair to discuss the task of the focus group in greater detail.

“The sole purpose [of the risk assessment tool] is to take away subjective factors,” Milliron said.

The state’s prisons are burgeoning with inmates, and this is one way to help a judge decide who should go to prison and who can be treated effectively in other ways, he said.

“What we are hoping to do is look at tons of data over the last 10 years,” Milliron said.

Milliron said this is something new for Pennsylvania, although risk assessment appears to be working in other states.

He said he would not let his participation on the sentencing commission take him away from his “primary responsibility” of serving as a judge in Blair County. Milliron said he will look at the crimes committed from a victim’s standpoint and won’t neglect public safety.

Milliron said using objective data is an “absolute trend. … It is coming,” he said.

Consiglio said he will be part of the focus group, but he said as of right now he isn’t sure what is happening.

He said he expressed strong feelings at the sentencing commission discussions two weeks ago that prior arrests, not just convictions, should be used as a factor in determining risk. He said that belief was not supported by defense attorneys.