Tuesday, September 12, 2006

So You Want to Direct Sentencing Commission Research? Part I

The first of a two-part series. We're inviting participants in sentencing commissions to contribute their perspectives in an ongoing dialogue with our readers. In this series David Wright, former Director of Research for the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center, which staffs the state's commission, talks about being a research director, particularly the hows and whys of a sentencing databases. We hope that other participants will use this as an opportunity to share your views and knowledge in the future.

For almost 6 years I served as the Director of Research for a Sentencing Commission and as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ contact to the state as the Statistical Analysis Center Director. During this time, I also had the honor to serve as the Interim Executive Director for the Commission for over 3 months. These opportunities involved working with two Executive Directors and over 20 different Commission members.

My responsibilities as Director of Research involved data collection, performing assessments, statistical analysis, research, and program evaluations for the Sentencing Commission, the Legislature, and other state, local, and federal agencies. Workloads will definitely be more in an agency that has a broader purpose than sentencing. However, there is greater potential for collaboration in sentencing and other projects in such an agency. These opportunities can be very beneficial in understanding sentencing practices and other criminal justice phenomenon. Indeed, researching and serving a wide range of criminal justice issues and entities, allows for the development of a beneficial synergy. Looking back on my experience, there were at least 5 critical items needed to be a successful Research Director and to keep the Commission and the Executive Director informed, credible, supportive, and seen as vital and on the cutting edge of research. These include the following: decent data, relevant research, stupendous/superior staff, time, and being thick-skinned.

D--n Good, or at least Decent, Data
The development of the Commission’s own database is essential for objective, non-partisan, data-driven research. The data, and the quality of it, will be the foundation for virtually everything the Commission will set out to accomplish. It is also likely to be one of the biggest points of contention. Data are dollars. The data may involve the actual DOC prison population or projections, the number of offenders diverted from prison through community-based sentencing programs such as drug courts, numbers used in bill impacts, or performance or outcome measures, all of which are related to the state budget and appropriations.

In building a comprehensive sentencing database, problems are likely to be encountered. One of these problems will likely involve the source of the sentencing data. It is preferable to receive electronic data directly from the courts, as opposed to data in paper format or data from the Department of Corrections (DOC). Data from the courts may have more relevant sentencing information than that of DOC and be less affected by DOC interpretation and reporting. Receiving data from the court-system will allow the data to be put under the microscope for further in-depth analysis. However, if the data cannot be received electronically from the courts, then the paper data collection process will result in a heavy burden for the research staff, as this is an on-going and continual process that will force more time constraints/demands and stress on the research staff.

The most critical data elements for a useful sentencing data system include:

Sentencing variables such as,
sentence type(s),
sentence length(s),
offense type(s),
total number of convictions,
sentence date,
case number(s),
controlling (or most severe) offense, (for this you will need a good staff attorney/general counsel to develop a felony crime index, which contains all felony sentences in statute and includes the sentencing ranges along with a rank order of offense severity),
treatment ordered,
fines, fee, costs assessments, victim compensation, restitution.

Mitigating and aggravating circumstance-related variables such as:
plea type(s),
whether a weapon/firearm was used during the offense(s),
characteristics about the victim (i.e. – age, race, gender, etc.),
theft amount,
drug type(s),
whether the offense(s) involved maiming and/or torturing,
prior criminal history.

Demographics of the offender such as:
date of birth,
social security number,
income level,
educational level,
county of offense(s).

The single most controversial data element is prior criminal history. Researchers need this information as a control for many analyses (i.e. – whether the number of prior felony convictions an offender possesses results in a longer sentence and/or a more severe sentence type). The prior criminal history information may also be used to enhance sentences.

Many criminal justice professionals including the District Attorneys, the law enforcement, the DOC officials, the Courts, will likely profess to have the best information, regarding prior criminal history. Others will contest that the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) records provide a more accurate assessment of prior criminal history. In reality, no single entity possesses all the needed information. The best advice or strategy is to triangulate databases through trying to match and merge databases to provide as complete a picture as possible. Previous research suggests that using just one source can be misleading and erroneous, thus, the database that involves a compiling of information is likely to be more accurate.

The conclusion will be posted tomorrow.

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