Tuesday, October 03, 2006

So You Want to Administer Sentences? Part I

As part of our continuing effort to get the experience and perspective of practitioners into general discussion, we asked one of our regular commenters, Tom McGee, to weigh in on his thoughts after having been on the management end of a range of sentences in his career, as he describes in Part I of this three-part series. Enjoy. And, better, Tom invites comments.

Mike asked me to put some thoughts together about sentencing from the perspective of a correctional administrator. In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked at one time or another as the superintendent of a reception center-clinic, chief of a parole division, head of a section that was responsible for intake and court liaison, and as university instructor, among other things.

Administrators tend to think about sentences and sentencing from a programming standpoint. Program is an associative concept; therefore it cannot be defined precisely. Start by thinking of correctional programs as containers of sorts, because offenders are put in them and often they have a fixed capacity. Correctional programs are composed of interfacing modules; i.e., deprivations, location, demographics, activities, rehabilitation techniques, and so on. Since these modules are described generically, they have to be broken down into their components for programming purposes. For example, an activities module may include a work component, school component, and so on. A location component may include Folsom Prison, South-Central Los Angeles, and so on. In this discussion we are concerned with just one of them; namely, deprivation program modules.

Administrators need a way to match offenders with programs for placement purposes. With computer technology, it is now possible to do this in a more sophisticated way. First, offenders and programs are classified, based on matching criteria; namely, program needs/restrictions and need/restriction fulfilling program components. Then offenders and programs are matched and re-matched as closely as possible, depending on the space available. In this way, priority can be given to those in greatest need of specific services and restrictions at a given point in time. With this information, it is also possible to continuously update the configuration of all programs so they meet the needs of all offenders in the population, as closely as possible.

Conceived broadly, but correctly I think, a sentence is the State’s answer to a set of actionable provocations that were embedded in a case narrative. They include the following: (1) the person in question committed a crime, (2) subject’s criminal conduct was an offense and (3) subject is a criminal offender. These provocations comprise a jeopardy argument and the State’s sentencing agenda for that person. Decision-makers respond to each provocation in its own right, by formulating one or more judgments that include the objectives, strategies and tactics for answering that provocation. By this means, four different deprivation components are framed, as follows: (1) warning enforcement, (2) offense accountability, (3) risk control and (4) risk reduction. More may be added to the agenda if the person in question commits another crime. Each deprivation component is composed of a tool-set; i.e., authorizations (restraints and takings) and orders (requirements). Restrictions are graded by level and duration. Decision-makers do not restrain offenders or take things from them; they authorize program providers to do so. But decision-makers may directly order offenders to do things. Deprivation components can be nested, because they are composed of the same kind of tools. Those that are associated with the same incident, run in tandem, with the most restrictive controlling at any given time. In this way all of the State’s sentencing objectives can be accomplished in each case without contradicting one another. Some can be used just one time (determinate), while others are renewable (indeterminate). Some are mandatory, while others may be discretionary.

A sentencing track starts with the underlying case narrative, runs through one of its embed provocations and on to a judgment, concluding with a deprivation component. Of course, sentencing involves the formulation of several different tracks. Guidelines can be established for each. Notice that this is a differentiated, not all-in-one sentencing system.

I have tried to show why correctional administrators have a stake in how deprivations are framed. Deprivation decision-making, or what has traditionally been called sentencing, is not something that just happens in the courthouse. It is an ongoing process, following the perpetrator wherever he or she is placed. Many different decision-makers contribute to the process, including judges, board members, program providers and so on. Accordingly, correctional programming is a collaborative task. Part of the sentencing process is primarily judicial, and the other is primarily administrative. I will comment on judicial sentencing in Part II of this discussion, and administrative sentencing in Part III.

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