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Analysis: ‘Uniform justice’ a tall task for sentencing group

JEFF AMY

Do some Mississippi judges sentence criminals more harshly than others? Do black defendants get longer sentences than white defendants? And if so, should the state try to get judges to do something about it?

Those are some of the thorny questions that could be answered by the Sentencing Disparity Task Force, a group of 14 elected officials, lawyers, judges, and others who started work last week. The law creating the task force is open-ended, saying members should “study and report the existence of possible disparity in sentencing for crimes,” so the state can promote “the interest of uniform justice.”

It won’t be a surprise if the task force discovers justice isn’t currently uniform across Mississippi.

“Anybody who’s spent any time in the criminal justice system in Mississippi can give these stories about differing sentences between similarly situated individuals,” said University of Mississippi law Professor Phillip Broadhead, who spoke to the attendees at their first meeting.

In parallel with the task force, a legislative watchdog committee is supposed to report by the end of November on detention or sentence lengths for people held in each city and county jail across the state.

The state court system already has data on how long people are sentenced, which was distributed to task force members.

“We’re going to collect and process as much data as we can and the numbers are going to speak questions of disparity,” said state Parole Board Chairman Steve Pickett, who was also elected as chair of the task force.

But the task force and others may be missing a key piece of information to decide whether a sentence is fair – a defendant’s prior criminal history. With that data, a heavy sentence for a previous offender might look rational when compared to a light sentence for a first offender. Without it, sentences could look wildly divergent.

That was one concern raised in the initial meeting. Another is how judges would greet sentencing guidelines, and how it might affect deals where district attorneys offer leniency in exchange for a plea.

Many states and the federal system have guidelines, which suggest a range of penalties for a crime, typically based on severity of a defendant’s criminal history. That means that while a crime might carry a sentence range of zero to 5 years in law, the sentencing guideline might be a much narrower band, such as 24 to 30 months.

Guidelines for federal judges were once mandatory. After the Supreme Court said Congress couldn’t take away a judge’s discretion in 2005, they’re only advisory. But in Mississippi’s federal courts, it’s unusual to see a judge stray outside the guideline range.

Chief Justice William Waller Jr. said at the meeting that the court system needs to be “fair, even and transparent,” but also said he wasn’t seeking a system that tied judges’ hands or promoted excessive leniency.

“We’re not trying to restrict the judges, restrict the prosecutors or empower the defense attorneys.”

Circuit Court Judge Claiborne “Buddy” McDonald of Picayune repeatedly voiced doubts over the potential impacts of sentencing guidelines.

“It looks to me you’re going to pretty much stop plea bargaining if you do this,” he said.

Despite those concerns, plea bargains continue apace in federal courts, although what crime a defendant pleads guilty to can become the key determinant of a sentence, as opposed to a prosecutor’s recommendation.

But even a guideline system is unlikely to boil out all the unfairness and imperfection. A 2015 study found that, despite guidelines, black people are more likely to get heavier federal sentences than white people for the same crimes.

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» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/By%20Jeff%20Amy .

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