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Criminal defense attorneys in New York have complained about how penalties for criminal convictions are handled. The use of indeterminate sentencing has resulted in the length of time a prisoner must serve on a felony conviction being left up to the state parole board. As a result, individuals serving time for nonviolent offenses have contributed to prison overcrowding because they are not being released as early in their sentences as they had been in the past.

If the chief judge of the state’s highest court has his way, the way judges impose sentences for a nonviolent misdemeanor or felony criminal charge will be changing. Under the proposal, which must be approved by the state legislature, sentencing guidelines would be changed to eliminate indeterminate sentences for most nonviolent crimes. Instead, judges would impose determinate sentences in which a criminal conviction would result in a jail or prison sentence for a precise length of time.

The current sentencing system allows judges to impose a sentence setting a range of time to be served. For instance, an individual might be sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison. The exact length of time the person would spend in prison would be determined by the state parole board.

Under the proposed sentencing plan, a judge would be given a sentencing range, such as one year to 10 years from which to choose the sentence he or she imposes. Whatever sentence the judge imposes will be the length of time the person spends in prison less time deducted from the sentence for good behavior as it is under current sentencing laws.

The sentencing reforms must pass a state legislature that may not be united in favor of them. In the meantime, a skilled and competent criminal defense attorney may be able to minimize the effects of the current sentencing guidelines. Plea negotiations and other defense strategies may soften the long-term consequences of the penalties courts may impose.


Source: The Wall Street Journal, "New York’s Chief Judge Proposes Fixed Prison Terms," Rebecca Davis O’Brien, May 27, 2015

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