State’s top judge advocates for targeted, cost-effective justice

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti addresses a joint session of the Legislature as Senate President Gary Stevens (left background) and House Speaker Mike Chenault (right background) listen.

Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti Wednesday took the opportunity of his final address to the legislature to ask lawmakers to consider some alternatives to the judicial system that have developed in the state. He referred to a new concept – called Smart Justice – that considers the possible result of every action taken by the justice system.

Chief Justice Carpeneti told legislators that the justice system at all levels, in every case, needs to consider the cost of its actions on the system’s resources, on public safety and on the potential of all citizens.

“In practice, it means making criminal justice decisions that reserve our most costly response to crime – prison time – for those cases where less costly alternatives will not effectively protect the public or rehabilitate the perpetrator.”

The major point of the address was a call to include the judiciary in tailoring prison or treatment sentences to offenders. He said that many people presume a judge is able to consider risk and rehabilitation when sentencing a convict.

“Indeed, under our current law, judges are generally required to take an offender’s prospects for rehabilitation into account. But the modern reality of the sentencing process is much different from the assumption. Under our state’s presumptive sentencing laws, in place since 1978, the judge’s role in sentencing is actually quite limited.”

He says the reality of a vast majority of cases allows judges only to approve or disapprove a sentence already worked out between prosecution and defense attorneys. He called it “superficial control,” and said that he often felt like an observer in the case, not a participant.

“The old adage of “if you can do the crime, you can do the time” is appealing on a gut level, and it has driven our criminal justice thinking for many years. It sounds tough, it rings true, and it seems only fair. But as we now know, the idea that jail time is the fitting response to every crime, or even to most crimes, has become an expensive and a possibly unnecessary proposition.”

He said the presumptive sentencing laws were written before there were studies and techniques available to predict criminal activity or to rehabilitate offenders. Carpeneti quoted the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.

“There is a better way. We need to move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French said the speech reinforced some of the work done in the legislature. He said his focus has been on reviewing the increasing number of non-violent offenders who are put in prison.

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