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Angiulo: MA Trial Court Reports on How Criminal Defendants Get Sentenced

Monday, May 09, 2016


Every person in a courtroom has a role to play. The lawyers make arguments, witnesses testify, and the judges make decisions. When it comes to criminal cases, judges are trusted to take control of a person's liberty.  While a term of imprisonment may only last years it may permanently shape a defendant's life after release or even impact generations of a family who are witnesses to the experience.  The same can be said, however, for the victims of these crimes. Finding a balance between these interests is a weighty responsibility.   

In light of how significant these decisions are, the trial courts of Massachusetts chose to generate guidelines for those judges tasked with making them. Since 2014, working groups from all of the courts with criminal jurisdiction came together to look at what the best practices were.  These working groups included judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other members of the legal community including law enforcement.

The results from this effort have been published online for public consumption and give lawyers, and everyone else, a glimpse into how sentences are determined. While each court is distinct, like juvenile court for example, there are consistent themes throughout the working group results.

The Superior Court, District Court, and Boston Municipal Court reports all share similar language. More specifically, the reports identify the purposes of criminal sentencing to be deterrence, public protection, retribution, and rehabilitation.

In addition, the reports go on to discuss that these purposes should be applied with certain parameters in mind. Those parameters are tailored to the individual defendants and the specific facts presented by a case, not simply the label applied by the criminal law.

For example, the court is instructed to impose sentences that are “proportionate to the gravity of the offense . . . the harm done to crime victims, and the blameworthiness of offenders.” This is obviously not a math equation and many would say it should not be.  Instead, these instructions allow an individual judge to look at the facts presented and make a decision consistent with what he or she  perceives to be reasonable. This kind of human touch, whether the result is a harsher or more lenient penalty, is why our criminal justice system is one of the best in the world.      

Another consideration is that “when reasonably feasible,” a judge should impose a sentence that encourages offender rehabilitation, general deterrence, incapacitation of dangerous offenders, restoration of crime victims and communities, and reintegration of offenders into the law-abiding community. Since a majority of people incarcerated are not in for life, it is significant that a sentencing judge should consider what will happen to a person after they are released.  

For members of the legal community and the general public, these guidelines are helpful reminders. They outline how the courts bring methodical justice to situations that might otherwise be chaotic reactions.  As recited in the Superior Court's report, however, our country incarcerates people at a rate far higher than many other nations.  What these reports may also be is a chance for reflection on what we are doing and why.     

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney in the city of Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and found on the web at www.angiulolaw.com


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