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Seeking nationwide sentence to fit crime: states move toward more uniform system of justice

By George B. MerryStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1981


A 26-year-old unemployed short-order cook was sentenced to 8-to-10 years in prison for armed robbery in Massachusetts. The same day, 1,600 miles to the west in a Wyoming courtroom, a 31-year-old odd-jobs man was handed a 3-to-5 year prison term for a similar offense.

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Such disparities in punishment are common, not only between states, but often within the same state.

While prospects for a single national sentencing system are less than slim, there has been considerable movement in some states toward more uniform courtroom justice.

The problem of prison overcrowding, which has hit most states, has necessitated, in some instances, not only the construction of new facilities but even the early release of some convicts and has tended, in the opinion of some observers on the corrections scene, to slow action on toughened sentence measures.

Overcrowding was behind the riots in the mammoth Southern Michigan Prison at Jackson and a smaller state prison at Marquette in late May. Nearly 6,500 inmates were involved. Considerable property damage was done by the fires set during the melee inside the Jackson facility, the world's largest walled prison.

Nearly two dozen states now provide for some kind of fixed, or largely discretion-free, penalty for some, if not all, types of crime. And several others are considering similar steps.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers are weighing two quite different proposals for so-called determinate sentencing. One proposal calls for set mandatory prison terms for those convicted of crimes against the elderly. The second, and substantially more sweeping, proposal would put in place less stringent but equally certain punishments.

The latter arrangement, known generally as presumptive sentencing, involves a specific prison term for each offense. But the judge, within certainprescribed bounds, can impose a stiffer or lesser penalty after taking into consideration any circumstances involving the crime or the offender.

In such instances, the reason for the higher or lower sentence must be in writing.

Under the Bay State proposal, for example, the presumptive sentence for second-degree parole eligibility. But a judge could extend the term to a maximum of 22 years or reduce it to below 10 years.

Although the sets of penalties and the range of flexibility vary, at least 13 states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Tennesee -- now have some form of presumptive sentencing. And all of them have made the switch in the past five years.

Several, like California and Maine, prescribe a specific term for each offense rather than a range of, say 4-to-6 years for a particular offense. But the judge can impose a harsher or lighter sentence only when he finds that "aggravating" or "mitigating" circumstances justify such action.

The shift to established minimum sentences has been accompanied by a phasing out of parole systems that allow discretionary early release of prisoners. At least 10 -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, and North Carolina -- have moved in this direction, according to David Rappaport of the Maryland-based American Correctional Association.

Another 14 have, mostly in recent years, set up parole guidelines that must be either observed or at least considered, thus having an impact on the length of sentences served by convicts. These states are Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Maine lawmakers are considering legislation to reinstate the parole system, a measure backed by Gov. Joseph Brennan. Maine was the first state in the nation to eliminate parole possibility for newly convicted felons back in 1946.

Besides Massachusetts, presumptive sentencing has been proposed in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin this year.