Stedman: Criminal sentencing DA: Let county system stand
nPanel discusses possibly changing criminal sentencing at local level to federal model. BY BRETT HAMBRIGHT, Staff Writer
Could criminal sentencing in Lancaster County soon mirror the federal system?
State lawmakers are at least entertaining the idea.
Local litigators are leery, however, saying that change would involve a complete makeover of the current county model.
"It would be a huge change," Lancaster defense attorney James Gratton said on Friday. "It would require a total rework of all the sentencing schemes, probation and parole."
Federal courts impose "flat" sentences, with judges ordering an exact number of months or years a defendant will serve in prison. The defendant is then paroled at that mark.
Lancaster County judges, as in all Pennsylvania counties, set minimum and maximum terms at sentencing. A defendant is eligible for parole at the minimum, depending on a parole board's decision.
In the federal system, judges essentially have ultimate power over when a defendant is paroled. With county-ordered sentences, the parole board has that authority.
While no legislation has been drafted concerning the implementation of the federal model, the conversation started Thursday morning at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Philadelphia.
There, a Philadelphia County judge voiced his support of flat sentencing being introduced at the local level.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, who testified at the hearing for the state district attorney's association, doesn't like the idea.
"That would be monumental," he said after the hearing. "It would be a massive change to our whole system."
While federal sentences typically are longer than terms ordered in county courts, Stedman believes the federal system offers no reward for good behavior in prison.
An inmate on a county-ordered sentence is often paroled after completing a minimum term -- or even a bit earlier -- if they followed prison rules.
There is no such incentive for a federal prisoner.
"It is an incredibly powerful incentive for an offender to be able to reduce his incarceration time by complying with prison rules," Stedman told the committee.
Also, Stedman pointed out, there are limited parole and probation terms with federal sentences. When a federal prisoner is released, they are often free from all supervision.
Some, including Stedman, believe that's a recipe for re-offending.
"Numerous defendants have openly admitted to me that they needed a significant parole period hanging over them to keep them from re-offending," Stedman told the committee.
"I'm a DA, but I think people can be rehabilitated," he said afterwards.
Lancaster County Judge Dennis Reinaker, also a member of the Lancaster County Prison Board, didn't take a position on flat sentencing. But he's concerned about limited supervision after an inmate's release.
"We have to enact some system that monitors and tries to help these people coming back into the community," he said on Friday. "Otherwise, they'll just re-offend, which, as history shows, happens all too frequently."
Supporters of the federal model, like Philadelphia County Judge Benjamin Lerner, believe flat sentences are more definitive. Victims know exactly when an inmate will be paroled.
Supporters of the federal system also claim that parole board decisions on releases aren't transparent, essentially being made behind closed doors.
Stedman said that's not entirely true: The parole board contacts him regularly for an opinion about a specific inmate eligible for parole.
"It's constant," he said of those correspondences.
Michael C. Potteiger, chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, adamantly opposed flat sentencing at the hearing, called by committee Chairman Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican representing Montgomery and Berks counties.
"(It) would not only cost a substantial amount of money," Potteiger told the committee, "but it would also rob victims of their voices, reduce public safety and treat offender needs and challenges as averages rather than as individuals."
While objecting to flat sentencing, Stedman outlined some potential tweaks to the current county system.
Notably, Stedman suggested that defendants who cooperate with police and/or plead guilty deserve a break at sentencing.
"All agree that a defendant who accepts responsibility for his or her actions deserves consideration for the same," Stedman told the committee. "Acceptance of responsibility spares the commonwealth the expense of a trial, spares witnesses from further inconvenience and spares the victim the trauma of reliving the crime."
Thursday's hearing could prove to be nothing more than a philosophical discussion. No plans were made for future hearings, making potential changes or legislation a long way off.
"I'd be surprised if it goes much beyond a hearing," Gratton said.
Stedman agreed, telling the committee his ideas "are only meant to begin the discussion."
"I wouldn't think this is going to happen anytime soon," he said after the hearing.
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