Angiulo: MA Trial Court Reports on How Criminal Defendants Get Sentenced
Monday, May 09, 2016
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.
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