It is the New Year and so it is customary to envision what we should accomplish in the the next year. Instead, allow me to envision a new evience-based sentencing system in place across the U.S. Let’s assume for a moment that only those truly deserving remain in prison or jail (hypothetically a fraction of those currently incarcerated). That would leave the Sentencing Judges with the critical task od deciding what do they do with those who commit criminal offenses. How would they sentence those convicted of a crime in a fair, humane and rational manner.

Actually the antecedents of such a sentencing system  go back more than 25 years to the dawn of the Drug Court era. It was widely understood that the sentencing and supervision of drug offenders wasn’t working. There was little coordination in the court’s dealing with the drug offender, the offender rarely saw the same judge or court personnel twice, there was little court or offender accountability and altogether inadequate rehabilitation services available.(Monograph No.2, of the 1999 NDCI Monograph Series, “Drug Court Systems”, Jeffrey Tauber)

Following the example of the Drug Court, our futuristic sentencing system would have the same judge and court team deal with the sentenced offender (to the extent possible), as part of a seamless supervision, treatment, and rehabilitation system, that runs from sentencing, through custody, through community supervision, to the very conclusion of the case.

Of course, while it’s true that states are enthusiasticaly turning to Drug Courts and other Specialty Courts, they don’t seem to understand that theirs is a very limited vision of the potential of effective Evidence-Basd Sentencing Systems. Even so,  they so far have severely limiting the number of participants in these specialty courts, that they say will make such a remarkable impact on their communities. It is estimated that as little as one percent of all felony offenders who are sentenced enter into a problem-solving court (a subject to be discussed in a future article).

To have a real impact on the criminal justice system, we need to think big, and systematically deal with all sentenced felony offenders (and perhaps serious misdemeanants as well). All convicted felons would need to go through a validated risk/needs assessment to determine their level of risk to recidivate and consequently the term of incarceration (if required), and alternatively the intensity and appropriateness of supervision and treatment.

Because the validated risk/needs assessment tool, will be able to predict with greater accuracy than an individual judge, who are the high risk offenders, we can concentrate our resources on those individuals. Of course, the corollary is that the low to medium risk offender would receive little or no supervision or treatment (allowing fewer valuable resources to be expended), as the scientific research tells us that the alternative (i.e., intensive supervison and treatment) would only increase their level of recidivism.

This “evidence-based sentencing system” would engage those offenders that require it and leave alone those who do not. A very selective and cost-effective model that has been tried in a few jurisdictions, and has the promise of revolutionizing the sentencing process. We are entering  a new era, more important than the Drug Court Era begun 25 years ago. It will be critical to keep our eye on the goal of systemically working with all felons and not just drug addicted offenders (remember 60 to 80% of drug offender are not drug dependent or addicted, but may still require incarceration, supervision and/or rehabilitation). The challenge posed will be to provide  evidence-based sentencing for all.

Existing sentencing or probation courts would have the responsibility to do more than they do today. Like other problem-solving court systems, Sentencing and/or Probation Courts will need to create a bond between offender and the court, that among other things, reminds both of their obligations, one to the other. Special Sentencing Court Systems need to deliver evidence-based sentencing through Sentencing Teams, as the systemic demands would be too complex and demanding for even the most dedicated individual judge. ( “Arming the Courts with Research: Ten Evidence Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and Reduce Costs”, a PEW monograph, Judge Roger Warren, ret.).

The Veterans Court provides a particularly good model of evidence-based sentencing for the Sentencing judge. The Veterans Court is able to deal with the “Whole Person”. An individual is directed to the Veterans Court because he or she is faced with a criminal case, not because they have a particular issue or problem (such as drug abuse or mental illness). The Veteran’s Court is prepared to deal with any and all issues facing the Veteran. To that extent, the Veteran’s court is a particularly good model for a “evidence-based sentencing system”. The Veterans court mets out appropriate sentences, as  a sentencing courts should,  dealing with many different issues, but also guides the particpant thorugh the appropriate supervision, monitoring, and rehabilitation services required (see: Veteran’s Court: a Harbinger of Things to Come).

True this is just a vision, but one that is within our grasp if we have the willingness and find the resources to make it a reality. [for a detailed description of the Evidence-Based Sentencing Model, click here]


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