Monday, September 7, 2015

Risk of future crime will soon be part of Pennsylvania sentencing scheme

Pennsylvania will introduce risk assessment into sentencing by next year.  It was part of a 2009 package of reforms for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, reported the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
"To me, this is a no-brainer," said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. "This is inserting science and data into decision-making."
However, there are concerns about basing prison sentences on crimes that haven't been committed yet. Some compare it to the film 'Minority Report,' in which the police arrest people for crimes that haven't occurred yet.
Wetzel, on the other hand, compares it to setting car insurance rates. Insurance companies use factors -- like age and gender -- to determine someone's risk of getting into a collision and then set rates.
Risk assessment, he said, is similar.
"I'm kinda baffled by the controversy," Wetzel said.
Bret Bucklen, director of planning, research, statistics and grants for the department, said judges currently use two "scores" to determine someone's jail sentence.
The first is the offense gravity score, which weighs the severity of the crime. And the second is the prior record score, which takes into account past crimes. Those two scores, Bucklen said, are put into a grid and they help a judge determine a jail sentence.
Risk assessment is a new way of approaching criminal sentencing. Risk assessment uses certain factors -- including age, prior arrests and types of prior crimes -- to inform a judge of a person's likelihood that they will commit another crime.
Commission Executive Director Mark H. Bergstrom said a judge would have the option to use a person's risk assessment in sentencing but would not be required to.
Someone found to have a low risk of recidivism might get a lesser sentence while others with a higher risk could get a longer sentence. A risk assessment, Bergstrom said, might also help a judge determine a specific program or alternative to incarceration for a convicted criminal.
"We recognized that this is not only about increasing or decreasing the duration of the sentence, it's more about how to affect the sentence, what should be a part of that sentence," he said.
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