IN 1966 the President's Commission on Crime in the District of Columbia studied the problem of sentence disparity. The commission reported that in the previous two years, one D.C. judge sentenced 91 percent of the convicted robbers who came before him to a prison term of at least five years. Another sentenced only 39 percent of these offenders to such a term.
In l980, Brian Forst of the Institute for Law and Social Research testified on the same subject before the City Council. The institute has developed a criminal justice data system for the D.C. courts that allows it to, among other things, track the sentencing practices of various judges. Mr. Forst found that the sentencing disparity described by the president's commission was still a problem, and he supported the adoption of sentencing guidelines to make penalties more explicit and more rational. This recommendation was echoed in the recently published report of the D.C. Bar Court Study Committee (the Horsky Committee) and has now been acted upon by the Superior Court judges themselves.
Last month, at a three-day sentencing seminar attended by all the Superior Court judges, a consensus was reached that sentencing guidelines should be developed and put into effect. Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I has now announced that he has begun to collect felony sentencing data--available through the system developed by the Institute for Law and Social Research--to determine the factors that most strongly influence judges in imposing sentences and to provide a framework to eliminate unwarranted disparities in imposing sentences.
Effective guidelines, such as the ones recently adopted by Maryland judges, would recommend a narrow range of sentences for each crime and specific adjustments for aggravating circumstances, such as use of a weapon, injury to the victim and prior record of the offender. Judges whose sentences varied from the recommended range should have to justify their decisions. Because they promote uniformity of sentences, guidelines encourage more equitable treatment of offenders, provide sound recommendations to judges and strengthen public confidence in the fairness of the judicial system. Superior Court judges are taking a wise step.