In a controversial change to the criminal justice sentencing system in Pennsylvania, judges will now be authorized to award longer penalties for individuals who they believe, according to sociological data, are most likely to offend again. While it can have some practical purposes to combat unnecessary future crimes, this is overall a dangerous practice that unfairly targets individuals based on their background. When has it ever been reasonable to lock someone up for something they never did? Here is some of what you need to know about this new approach to criminal sentencing.
While this new practice won’t incarcerate anyone who’s never committed any crime, it will decide upon longer or shorter sentencing based on the likelihood that they will offend again. It goes into questions of their gender and age, level of education, personal attitude, area of residence, and the history of other family members. If these forces match up with someone who fits the profile of a repeat offender, the sentence will be lengthened. See the problem?
The concerns of sociologists are not the realm of law, and while they may have some place in an idealized system, the United States law has been and should be concerned primarily with what has actually happened—not some attempts to quantify the future. These questions into the impact of education or neighborhood makeup fueling incarceration can be valuable to research, and could have a positive impact for school funding and other reforms, but to use those as a justification for further sentencing seem far-fetched and frightening.
Currently, the Federal Rules of Evidence (rule 404) prohibits using a person’s past actions to determine their character as a means for sentencing. While it’s of course used frequency to gain the sympathy of a judge or jury, the prosecution still must prove that the defendant committed the specific crime in question. However, the inclusion of victim impact statements is also part of the sentencing process and while it can be important for that victim, does not always make sense to include in a legal sense, only a psychological one, but stands firmly in the realm of legal realism which has been questionable throughout time.
Defendants should be particularly wary of sentencing procedures that take into account their demographics as an indicator of ‘poor character’ or as some sort of litmus test for whether or not they will continue to break the law, and any good defense lawyer will know the necessity to prove the specific case at hand rather than have their client portrayed as some sort of ongoing criminal. If you believe you are being unfairly targeted by this sort of sociological data, we at Sebald, Hackwelder, & Knox can help. For a free phone consultation with some of the best defense lawyers around, give us a call today at 814-833-1987. We will work to make sure that your case deals strictly with the legal facts of the matter, and ensure that you are treated fairly and justly throughout the process.