Systemic Approaches to Sentencing: Part 8

May 21, 2012

Reducing Prison terms through Front-End Sentencing: Part 8

The diagram on the left represents the second half of a sentencing system envisioned, allowing us to use an evidence-based sentencing system as a means to keep serious (but non-violent) offenders from serving long prison terms  (Composition of a Sentencing Track: Part 6).

As described in previous articles (see: Front-Loaded Court Based interventions), the front-end of a prison sentence provides the only substantial opportunity a court has to effect a prison term, once a felon is sentenced. Few courts use that statutory authority to return the felon from prison. When used at all, the authority is often applied in a non-systemic fashion, with individual judges operating on their own.

“Front-End Systemic Approaches” to long prison terms described here, (compare: Decision Making in a Sentencing system: Part 7)  presents an opportunity to use graduated sanctions rather than immediate prison sentences for serious, but not-violent offenses. Such Front-End Systems can be structured in different ways. Some courts may include non-prison sentences (typically county jail or community corrections programs) as part of an “alternatives to  prison” system.

Systemic approaches to “Front-End Alternatives to Prison”, might start with a Community Corrections level alternative sentence. With new offenses and/or serious violations of probation, they might move up to a county jail alternative, and finally to a short term prison sentence in lieu of a long term prison sentence. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, an offender might start a  “Front-End”  Intervention at any of the the three levels described. The flexibility inherent in a three tier front end/early intervention system is impressive, as is its ability to respond to the safety of the community and the needs of the offender:

A.  Community Corrections Sentence in lieu of Prison: Less often used than other alternatives, this community based alternative to prison (typically residential treatment or correctional housing while an offender receives education, job training or employment), allows the judge to closely follow the offenders participation in a community based program, providing incentives or sanctions as appropriate. With successful program completion,the participant is returned to the community to continue supervision and rehabilitation under court authority. [Note: this alternative can be the first of two used before the offender is ordered to serve any prison sentence]

B. County Jail Alternative: This second tier “Front End Prison Alternative” can better emphasize the risk that the felon has of being sent to prison. Like the “Community Corrections Alternative, the County Jail Alternative  allows close monitoring  by the sentencing judge, appropriate incentives and sanctions, and a return to the community for further court supervision.

C. Front-End Prison Term: This ought to be thought of as a felon’s last opportunity to avoid a long prison term. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, some jurisdictions will start the Front-End Sentencing process with a prison term (skipping over possible Community Corrections and County Jail level interventions), hopefully reducing a long term sentence to a relatively brief 4 to 12 months in prison, and returning the felon to the community to complete the sentence under court supervision.

Next week’s segment will show how systemic sentencing can be provided at  minimal cost

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