Data-Driven Sentencing Drives AL Justice Policy

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The criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number, reports the Montgomery Advertiser. Crimes now are rated by a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium, or low risk. Alabama is a trendsetter for better or worse on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. “With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data-driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy. Obviously that’s not something everybody will jump on board with, but I think it’s important to make decisions, particularly ones that have huge price tags attached to them, to much more of a data driven process.”

Attorneys remain critical of the sentencing guidelines, and judges are split on whether or not the score sheets rob them of their ability to adjudicate. The reforms have shown promising returns in popping the balloon on Alabama’s prison population and the data collected over the next few years could continue to encourage progressive criminal reform. The two-pronged reform began with the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013 that essentially reduced sentencing decisions to a score sheet in an effort to be more selective and consistent about who gets locked away. For drug offenses, eight or more points, such as a distribution of marijuana charge (6 points) and a possession with intent to distribute charge (5 points), will land that person in prison barring mitigating factors. For property crimes, 15 points is required for a prison sentence. Both sheets also add points for prior adult convictions, incarcerations, probation revocations, and juvenile delinquencies. The idea is to send fewer non-violent offenders to prison to relieve the burden on a prison system that at the time the guidelines were implemented, housed nearly twice the inmate population (25,299) than it was designed for (13,318).

 

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