Virginia judges formerly sentenced nonviolent criminals by scanning convicts’ rap sheets and court files and taking into account such general factors as age and history. For three years, says the Washington Post, judges have had the option of using a one-page statistical report that analyzes such characteristics as a felon’s sex and marital and employment status. It provides a numerical calculation that quantifies the likelihood that a burglar or drug dealer will commit another crime.
It is an attempt to predict the future that uses statistics to estimate the threat each offender poses to public safety. The system, controversial in legal circles, stems from years of research and a desire by Virginia officials to determine empirically which criminals are more likely to commit another crime and should go to prison and which felons pose limited risk and could be referred to less-expensive alternatives, such as probation. Backers say they hope to divert 1,000 felons a year from prison once the program is fully operational. “We’re saying a lot of these people who would go to prison normally do not represent a significant threat to the public safety,” said Richard Kern of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission and developer of the scorecard. Opponents say the system unjustly punishes some offenders not on the basis of their crime but on characteristics that are beyond their control.