Pan­elists on do­ing time OK new grid

Sen­tenc­ing guide goes to leg­is­la­tors

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MORITZ

A new sen­tenc­ing grid that for the first time would sug­gest a range of years in state prison — rather than a sin­gle rec­om­mended term — was ap­proved by the Arkansas Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion on Fri­day.

The com­mis­sion ear­lier this sum­mer pro­posed the first change to the op­tional grid since it was adopted in 1994, af­ter be­ing di­rected to do so by law­mak­ers.

Un­der the pro­pos- al, judges would have more flex- ibil­ity to ad­here to the pun­ish­ment guide­lines of­fered by the state, though they still would not be re­quired to do so.

A leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee must ap­prove the new guide­lines be­fore they can take ef­fect Jan. 1.

If ap­proved, it’s un­clear how the new grid would af­fect the num­ber of peo­ple sent to prison in Arkansas, said Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion Di­rec­tor Sandy Moll.

Moll said such data would not be avail­able un­til 2019, af­ter a full year of


The De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion also has not made es­ti­ma­tions based off the pro­posed grid, a spokesman said.

In re­cent years, judges’ rul­ings have in­creas­ingly com­plied with the grid, reach­ing a high of 65 per­cent in 2015, the most re­cent year for which data are avail­able, ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion.

With the new grid al­low­ing judges’ rul­ings to fall within a range, Moll said, she ex­pects com­pli­ance rates to climb even higher.

The grid is made up of a ver­ti­cal rank­ing 1 through 10 by the se­ri­ous­ness of the of­fense and a hor­i­zon­tal row that tracks the of­fender’s crim­i­nal his­tory on a zero through five score.

On Fri­day, the Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion also ap­proved a new of­fense se­ri­ous­ness rank­ing, an ac­tion taken af­ter each leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Each cell of the new grid rec­om­mends be­tween one and three op­tions: a term in state prison, as­sign­ment to a com­mu­nity cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity, or an al­ter­na­tive sanc­tion, which in­cludes pro­ba­tion.

Un­der its new format, the grid has fewer cells in which a prison term is the only rec­om­mended pun­ish­ment. It also has fewer cells of­fer­ing all three op­tions.

Re­vi­sions to the grid were or­dered as part of an om­nibus crim­i­nal jus­tice pack­age, Act 423, passed by law­mak­ers ear­lier this year as part of an ef­fort to re­duce over­crowd­ing in state pris­ons.

The new law also au­tho­rized cri­sis cen­ters for men­tally ill of­fend­ers, as well as a new range of pun­ish­ments for parolees and pro­ba­tion­ers who get caught break­ing the rules or are charged with mis­de­meanors.

The new grid was pre­pared in con­sul­ta­tion with pros­e­cu­tors and pub­lic de­fend­ers, Moll said. No one re­sponded dur­ing a pub­lic com­ment pe­riod be­fore the com­mis­sion’s vote Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to com­mis­sion staff.

Greg Par­rish, the di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Pub­lic De­fender Com­mis­sion, said the agency is still re­view­ing the new grid and will have a meet­ing next week where it will be dis­cussed.

Bob McMa­han, the head of the Pros­e­cut­ing At­tor­neys As­so­ci­a­tion, said his mem­bers were gen­er­ally sup­port­ive.

Cir­cuit Judge Gor­don Webb of Harrison told fel­low com­mis­sion­ers dur­ing the con­fer­ence call in which the vote was held, “I won’t say I’m ter­ri­bly sur­prised [about the lack of pub­lic com­ment], but I’m a lit­tle bit con­cerned that peo­ple are not pay­ing that much at­ten­tion.”

The com­mis­sion voted unan­i­mously to ap­prove both the new of­fense se­ri­ous­ness rank­ings and the sen­tenc­ing grid, with barely any dis­cus­sion.

Moll said the com­mis­sion dis­cussed both pro­pos­als for sev­eral hours dur­ing a June meet­ing. Fri­day’s vote in­volved four new com­mis­sion­ers, who took of­fice af­ter the June meet­ing.

Copies of the pro­posed grid are avail­able on the Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion’s web­site.

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