Sentencing Commission Releases Guidelines on Alternative Penalties

Judges may depart from federal sentencing guidelines in order to refer offenders with alcohol and other drug problems to addiction treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, according to new guidelines issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“The commission has heard from virtually every sector of the criminal-justice community that there is a great need for alternatives to incarceration,” said commission chairman William K. Sessions III. “Expanding the availability of alternatives to straight incarceration is a public-safety issue. Providing flexibility in sentencing for certain low-level, non-violent offenders helps lower recidivism, is cost effective, and protects the public. The commission's action in this area amounts to a very modest but important step in the right direction.”

The amendment to federal sentencing policy (PDF) “informs courts that departures from the guidelines may be warranted in situations where an offender's criminal activity is related to a treatment issue such as drug or alcohol abuse or significant mental illness and sentencing options such as home or community confinement or intermittent confinement would serve a specific treatment purpose.”

The commission also recommended that courts “take into consideration the effectiveness of residential treatment programs as part of their decision to impose community confinement.”

Separately, the commission also gave courts more discretion to consider age, mental and emotional conditions, physical condition, and military service, when relevant, in determining sentences.

The amendments issued by the commission were due to Congress by May 1. They will automatically go into effect on Nov. 1 unless blocked legislatively by Congress.

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