Sentencing Commission Releases Second Annual Report

Sentencing Commission Releases Second Annual Report

Lisa Rieger

Rieger, Lisa. (Winter 1992). "Sentencing Commission Releases Second Annual Report." Alaska Justice Forum 8(4): 8-9. The Alaska Sentencing Commission was created by an act of the Alaska Legislature to evaluate the effect of sentencing laws and practices on Alaska's criminal justice system and to recommend improvements in criminal sentencing practices. This article discusses the commmission's first year of work as described in its 1991 annual report to the legislature.

According to its 1991 Annual Report, the Alaska Sentencing Commission considered several policy issues related to the sentencing structure: 1) the possibility of restructuring the state sentencing system; 2) the terms and conditions of probation and parole; 3) treatment alternatives and rehabilitation as sentencing goals; 4) use of intermediate sanctions and program options; and 5) the need for a comprehensive criminal justice data base.

The Commission operates from a broad-based policy perspective, taking into consideration the divergent attitudes of each of the departments responsible for the administration of justice. The freedom to analyze sentencing issues using information from experts and other states which have undertaken sentencing reform permits the Commission to make recommendations which are considered and not merely responsive to recent highly publicized events. The perspective of the Commission may forestall a future need for reform of reforms.

Restructuring the Sentencing System

The Commission made no recommendations with regard to restructuring the sentencing system. It analyzed 174 offenses listed in the Alaska codes and their presumptive sentences according to seriousness, level of offense and typical sentence and compared its findings with the handling of similar offenses in other states. Although the Commission discovered some disagreement between its ranking of seriousness and the current level of offense, the Commission did not recommend any reclassifications or changes in sentences. However, the possibility of reclassifying or changing the definition for statutory rape and of changing the sentences for minor drug offenses will be discussed further in 1992.

In several states and under the federal sentencing system, where sentencing reform has been implemented, elaborate grid systems have been devised to accommodate differences in criminal history and offender characteristics so that the punishment is tailored both to the crime and the criminal. For example, Alaska's grid system contains 20 ranges for felonies in comparison to 60 in Minnesota, 99 in Oregon and 135 in Washington state. However, the Commission did not recommend the adoption of a more complex grid system in Alaska, in part because of the investment already made in the current system. The Commission felt that few problems have surfaced in Alaska, in spite of the greater degree of flexibility given to judges in the state.

Probation and Parole

The Commission made two recommendations with regard to probation and parole issues. First, it recommended legislation to expand immunity from liability for the state and state employees in the release and supervision of persons in state custody who are on parole, probation, furlough, work release, or under similar conditions of release. The Commission recognized that difficulties with probation and parole supervision, especially in remote villages, currently often dictates potentially inappropriate release decisions, such as releasing someone to a "hub," rather than the village of residence. (However, the Commission did not give its support to SB 214, which concerns this issue, noting that legislation on this subject was "a complicated matter, involving a number of technical legal questions with the commission has not addressed.")

The Commission also recommended that the Alaska Rules of Court be revised to give priority to probation revocation proceedings. The Commission believes this will ameliorate current problems of delay for offenders entering needed rehabilitation programs and in disposing of probationer problems.

Three additional probation-parole issues were specifically designated for further study in 1992:

  1. Should mandatory parole terms be lengthened?
  2. Should discretionary parole release be available to any presumptively sentenced offenders?
  3. Should the maximum term of available probation be lengthened from five to ten years?

Rehabilitation as a Sentencing Goal

The Commission evaluated treatment alternatives for certain offenders, identifying sex offenders and substance abusers in particular as individuals for whom the twin constitutional goals of rehabilitation and protection of the public often go hand in hand. In these categories the potential for reoffending against the same victims—family and friends—are great. Without treatment many offenders in these categories would reoffend after release, rehabilitation has value "not only for the offender, but also for the good of the victim and for society as a whole."

The Commission made a series of recommendations with regard to rehabilitation, supporting rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing and imprisonment, and emphasizing that rehabilitation programs must be carefully and rigorously evaluated to determine their efficacy and viability. Finally, the Commission pointed out that such programs are only one part of a crime prevention effort, which must be undertaken by the entire community as well as by the criminal justice system.

Use of Intermediate Sanctions and Program Options

The costs associated with long term imprisonment for those convicted of serious felonies and the costs and risks of the same offenders committing more offenses if they are not incarcerated have formed the framework of a national debate. The Sentencing Commission is collecting national studies of this issue and will continue to address cost issues during the coming year. Although intermediate sanctions do not cost as much as imprisonment, they still require significant expenditures if they are to be successful. The Commission has undertaken a project with the National Institute of Corrections and the State Justice Institute to assess the state's needs and problems in this area.

Several different intermediate sanctions and program options are currently utilized in varying degrees in Alaska. They include: monetary options, such as fines, forfeiture and restitution; offender monitoring and restrictions on liberty, such as electronic monitoring, intensive supervision, and halfway houses; and shock value options, such as short periods of incarceration designed to dissuade the new offender from committing future offenses. The Commission recommended that the Department of Corrections expand its use of intermediate sanctions and that the judiciary be encouraged to use intermediate sanctions more extensively for felonies and misdemeanors, as well as for probation and parole violations. In particular, the Commission recommended that the intermediate sanction imposed for probation and parole violations match the nature of the violation (e.g., for dirty drug tests, a substance abuse program, and for curfew violations, restrictive programs such as electronic monitoring).

A Comprehensive Criminal Justice Data Base

The Sentencing Commission in 1991 addressed its own need for reliable data by beginning to assemble a data base based on information from the three primary computer systems—OBSCIS (Department of Corrections), PROMIS (Department of Law) and APSIN (Department of Public Safety). (The court data system is not centralized and cannot produce much aggregate information.) The Commission recognizes that the criminal justice data problem presents a serious impediment to rational decision-making on criminal justice management in Alaska. Currently, it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide the effectiveness of one sanction over another because existing records are incomplete or fragmented. Therefore, average sentences, amount of time served and recidivism rates cannot be assessed.

The Sentencing Commission's work highlights the importance of bringing together a representative group of persons responsible for the administration of justice in Alaska to consider the difficult and complicated issues elated to sentencing reform. Changes in sentencing legislation must take into account the manystresses socriety imposes on the criminal justice system; the product of the Sentencing Commission can advance that reform.

Lisa Rieger is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.