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April 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


More Offenders Face Prison Sentences

According to a new report issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), from fiscal year 1997 to fiscal year 2007, the proportion of federal offenders receiving alternatives to prison sentences has decreased while the proportion of federal offenders sentenced to prison has increased—from 75.4 percent in FY 1997 to 85.3 percent in FY 2007. Over the same time period, sentencing to alternatives such as probation declined from 13.1 percent to 7.7 percent, probation combined with confinement alternatives declined from 7.1 percent to 3.9 percent, and sentences combining a prison term with alternative confinement declined from 4.4 percent to 3.1 percent.

The report, Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System, analyzed alternative sentences for federal offenders and, specifically, U.S. citizens.

Alternatives to incarceration can be probation alone or in combination with community confinement (residence in a community treatment center, halfway house, or similar facility), home detention, or intermittent confinement (custody for specified intervals of time). The Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act of 1988 authorized the use of home detention and electronic monitoring for offenders sentenced to probation and supervised release. Federal statutes and the sentencing guidelines limit offender eligibility for probation sentences.

The USSC report noted, “Despite the availability of alternative sentencing options for nearly one-fourth of all federal offenders, federal courts most often impose prison for offenders ….”

Confinement options under the sentencing guidelines are determined by a sentencing table divided into four zones. In the lowest zone, sentencing ranges are from zero to six months of confinement but may consist of probation only, or probation combined with some type of alternative confinement. Nearly half of the offenders in this zone are sentenced to prison, not probation. Sentences in the highest zone require a term of imprisonment ranging from one year to life. Most federal offenders—94.6 percent—are sentenced in this zone and are sentenced to prison.

For U.S. citizens, prison sentences accounted for 81.1 percent of sentences imposed in FY 2007. The remaining sentences were probation (8.4 percent), probation with confinement (5.8 percent), and prison split with community confinement (4.7 percent.)

Home confinement is the most commonly imposed alternative sentence. Nearly three-quarters of offenders sentenced to a prison/community split are sentenced to home confinement. Ninety percent of offenders sentenced to probation with confinement received home confinement.

The report concluded that the question of why courts impose alternative sentences for some eligible offenders but not others “cannot be definitively answered.” Analysis, however, suggested some factors.

“Guideline offense level and Criminal History Category, alone or in combination, are the principal factors determining whether an offender receives an alternative sentence,” the report observed. For example, offenders sentenced in the lower sentencing zones received alternative sentences more often than those in the higher zones. Offenders with a less serious criminal history, with higher levels of education, and older than 50 years, are most likely to be sentenced to alternatives. U.S. citizens are substantially more likely to receive alternative sentences than non-citizens.

Immigration and firearms offenders are least likely to receive alternative sentences compared to other offenders, while offenders sentenced for financial crimes of larceny, fraud, and other white collar offenses are most often sentenced to alternatives. Financial offenses may be more suited to alternative sentences because of restitution; a substantial proportion of these offenders were ordered to pay restitution as part of their sentences.

“For the appropriate offenders,” the report concludes, “alternatives to incarceration can provide a substitute for costly incarceration. Ideally, alternatives also provide those offenders opportunities by diverting them from prison (or reducing time spent in prison) and into programs providing the life skills and treatment necessary to become law-abiding and productive members of society.”