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Does the Punishment Fit the Crime? Factors That Matter When Suggesting Justice Reform

Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently announced that his department will explore further opportunities to make PA’s criminal justice system more effective and efficient.  Like many calling for reform, he is particularly interested in the “non-violent” offenders taking up valuable space in the state prison system.  A press release (1/17/2019) from the A.G.’s office notes that “70 percent of prison sentences are handed out for misdemeanor crimes, which means that more than 30,000 people who committed low-level, usually non-violent crimes are clogging our prisons.” While I believe that PA does overincarcerate and that there are people in prison who don’t need to be there for public safety reasons, it is misleading to state that most prison inmates are “low-level, non-violent offenders.”

Pennsylvania is a state that employs sentencing guidelines in criminal court.  PA sentencing guidelines use two main factors in suggesting the most appropriate punishment. The first of these is OGS or Offense Gravity Score.  OGS considers the seriousness of the current criminal conviction and assigns a number to it, with higher numbers representing more serious crimes.  The second factor is PRS or Prior Record Score.  PRS takes into account the number and seriousness of the person’s prior criminal convictions to arrive at a score.  Using a grid with OGS on the x axis and PRS on the y axis, the person is then placed in a cell which has a punishment recommendation.  Overall, there are 5 Levels of punishment recommendations within PA’s sentencing guidelines ranging from Restorative Sanctions at Level 1 to State Prison at Level 5.

Sentencing in PA is complicated with all sorts of “special” considerations such as mandatory sentences and enhancements, aggravating and mitigating factors, none of which I will delve into here.  I think the important thing to remember is that sentencing is not only about a person’s current criminal conviction and what that person owes to society for committing that crime (PA’s criminal code states the purpose of sentencing is punishment, often referred to as a “just desserts” model), it also mandates consideration of a person’s criminal history. Looking at the PA Commission on Sentencing’s 2017 Annual Report, data shows that of the 136,313 reported sentences in 2017, 69 percent resulted from sentences graded as misdemeanors (PCS 2017 Annual Report, 39).  The report also notes that only 11 percent of reported sentences resulted in state incarceration.  It is possible for a person whose current conviction is a misdemeanor (lower level OGS) to be sentenced to state prison BUT such a person would likely have a long and serious criminal history resulting in a high PRS score.

Research and evaluation results tell us that offenders are by and large generalists and will usually have arrests and convictions for different types of crime such as drug, property and person.  In my view, the labels “non-violent” and “violent” offenders are imprecise and misleading.  A person may have a property crime conviction currently but may well have past convictions for serious felonies.  My message here is to base any reform recommendations on a thorough understanding of the justice populations at varying levels of the system and how they ended up where they are.

All this being said, the state has enacted several meaningful reforms to right-size the justice, particularly state prison, system but more can and should be done as the Auditor General and others have indicated.  Stay tuned for some suggestions for further reforms.

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