Blair County's judges in the not too distant future will have a new tool to use when it comes to sentencing defendants in criminal cases.
The Pennsylvania Comm
ission on Sentencing, headquartered at Penn State, has spent two years or more developing a procedure to determine the risk of a defendant being rearrested.
Risk assessment is nearly ready for use, but before it becomes a staple throughout Pennsylvania, judges in four counties will try it out.
The counties selected for the pilot project include Blair, Westmoreland, Allegheny and Phila
These are the counties that have judges on the 11-member Sentencing Commission, with one of those judges being Daniel J. Milliron, who has been on the Blair County Court of Common Pleas for 11 years.
The executive director of the commission, Mark H. Bergstrom, talked about the Sentencing Commission's work and the risk assessment tool when he spoke last week at a meeting of the Jeremiah S. Black Inn of Courts at The Casino at Lakemont Park.
The Inn of Courts is comprised of the Blair's judges and attorneys who meet socially each month but who, during the meetings, often review key issues facing the local and state courts.
"We are going to start testing in four counties to see if [risk assessment] works. If it is positive, we will be going statewide on it," Bergstrom told the group, which included Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, Judge Wade Kagarise and Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter.
The Blair County judges seem enthusiastic about their part in the testing of a risk assessment tool.
"I think it is great to be a part of it. ... It seems we are kind of on the front end," Kagarise said when asked his feelings about an attempt to pinpoint and analyze factors that lead to recidivism, or the rearrest of an individual who has already been through the justice system.
Kagarise has been on the bench for four months after many years as a chief deputy district attorney in Blair County.
He said the judges are aware of generally what will be involved, and he believes the time is near when the pilot project will begin, but no specific date has been established.
He, the other judges and representatives from the justice system have participated in a focus group led by Milliron to provide feedback to the Sentencing Commission as the final touches are being put on the risk assessment tool.
He pointed out risk assessment is just part of many other "tools" that the judges will use when deciding what sentence to impose on a defendant.
"There's no downside to that [a new tool]," he emphasized.
He said sentencing is to punish and to deter, which includes an assessment of whether or not a defendant is likely to reoffend.
The assessment tool is designed to help a judge with that last question, the judge pointed out.
Blair County Court Administrator Janice Meadows has been part of the local effort to prepare for the pilot project.
Representatives of Blair's justice system were briefed on the risk assessment project in Harrisburg in February 2013, Meadows said.
She said the Sentencing Commission has been through an extensive process designed to pinpoint the factors that can be used to determine risk of rearrest.
Eight factors of risk were indentified in the initial study including gender, age, the person's county, number of prior arrests, property arrests, prior drug arrests, current property offense and the offense gravity score (seriousness) of the crime.
The commission then prepared a scale of 14 levels to assess a defendant's individual risk. The first four levels of the scale, a risk of 0-4, would place the defendant into a low-risk category.
Recently, the emphasis has been placed on how the risk assessment would be presented to a judge. Would it include all the data used to arrive at the risk level?
"The whole goal is to predict whether somebody is going to offend again," Meadows explained.
The development of a risk assessment tool is part of an overall review of the state's justice system, as explained by Bergstrom.
The General Assembly has mandated the Sentencing Commission to develop a risk assessment tool, much like the one used in Virginia.
The state's elected officials are concerned about the huge prison population of more than 51,000 inmates - more than 54,000 if considering those in community correctional centers - and the cost of maintaining the system, which has burgeoned to more than $2 billion annually.
The entire justice system is being reviewed by the Department of Corrections, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and the Sentencing Commission with an eye toward doing things better and more efficiently.
Bergstrom pointed out that the risk assessment tool is just one new development.
He pointed to a major change that has occurred in the use of community corrections centers.
Once used to house inmates in the final stages of incarceration, they now house parole and probation violators, as opposed to sending them back to prison.
New programs have also been developed to aid with the rehabilitation of low risk offenders such as State Intermediate Punishment for drug and alcohol abusers and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive, known as Triple-RI, he pointed out.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.