EARLY LAST YEAR, Superior Court Chief Judge Carl Moultrie I announced the formation of a commission to study felony sentencing. The commission, composed of jurists, prosecutors, defense attorneys and academicians, is headed by Judge Fred Ugast, who presides over the criminal division of the court. It has two tasks. The first is to collect data on the felony sentences actually being imposed in Superior Court -- specifically, during the first six months of 1984 -- and that work has been completed, though no data have yet been released. The second job is to produce guidelines for judges, so that sentence disparity will be greatly reduced. Those guidelines were to be ready this month.
The commission will not meet its self-imposed deadline, but that is not a major problem. The members all have busy schedules, and the work they have undertaken is not simple. A delay of a few months is inconsequential if the final product is a good one. Of course, the issue is of primary importance to the courts. Every judge does his best to mete out a sentence that is appropriate to the crime and to the offender. But as at least one jurist has complained, there is no institutional memory of how similar cases involving defendants with similar records were handled last week in the courtroom across the hall, or five years ago by the same judge. In one courtroom, for example, a judge may consistently sentence second-offense housebreakers to prison while his colleague rarely imposes that penalty for a nonviolent offender with fewer than four convictions. Neither judge knows, through formal institutional channels, what the other is regularly doing, and there is no court-wide consensus on what the right sentence should be.
Guidelines based on actual experience would suggest a narrow range of dispositons that take into account not only the characteristics of the crime -- the use of a weapon, injury to the victim, the possibility of reparation -- but the history and characteristics of the offender as well. They would enable judges to sentence with more uniformity and justice.
After the commission's report is completed, more decisions must be made. How will the guidelines be implemented and who will be responsible for oversight? How will changes in court be coordinated with the parole board and corrections authorities? Should the guidelines be adopted in statutory form or should individual judges be free to ignore them? The issue is of great importance to officials grappling with prison overcrowding and the construction of new penal facilities. The sooner Judge Ugast's committee reports the better.