Originally created 12/02/99

Panel recommends sentencing guidelines



ATLANTA -- An ad hoc panel of judges, prosecutors and victims' advocates Wednesday asked Gov. Roy Barnes to appoint a permanent commission to draft voluntary guidelines for sentencing felons.

During a luncheon meeting with the Governor's Commission on Certainty in Sentencing, Mr. Barnes said guidelines would ensure that small-time criminals don't take up prison cells needed for more hardened offenders. Otherwise, he explained, judges are inclined to mete out harsh sentences in every case, even to candidates for alternatives.

"You reserve the hardest bed for the hardest criminal," he said.

Georgia judges now have nearly complete discretion to hand down sentences as strict or lenient as they wish with no guidance on how to weigh contributing factors. The panel, which began studying the issue in August, recommended moving to a point system in which a judge would assess points to factors like prior record, possession of a weapon during the crime and victim's injuries.

The guidelines would become part of rules adopted by the Georgia Supreme Court. Judges would still have discretion to vary from the voluntary guidelines in handing out longer sentences, but felons could appeal.

A permanent commission would gather data on how Georgia judges currently punish offenders to determine how many points to assign each factor.

Appointing a commission won't require legislation, said Mr. Barnes, who expects to name its members early next year.

The state Department of Corrections is seeking $45 million in next year's state budget to fund more alternatives to incarceration. The money would allow the state to double the number of probation officers and the number of beds in low-security dorms where inmates receive counseling at night and leave during the day to go to work.

Prison beds cost taxpayers approximately $50 a day, while alternative beds cost as little as $30 a day, according to the Department of Corrections.

"We want to give the judges alternatives because they are sentencing a lot of people who fit the profile of people who could be in these alternatives," said Mike Light, an assistant to Corrections Commissioner Jim Wetherington.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424.