Using Risk Assessment to Inform Sentencing Decisions for Non-Violent Offenders in Virginia

Matthew Kleiman, National Center for State Courts
Brian J. Ostrom, National Center for State Courts
Fred Cheesman II, National Center for State Courts

In 1994, Virginia abolished parole and adopted truth-in-sentencing guidelines for persons convicted of felonies. As part of this reform package, the General Assembly required the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (VCSC) to recommend a method for diverting 25 percent of non-violent, prison-bound offenders into alternative sanction programs using risk assessment to identify the lowest risk offenders. The VCSC created a risk assessment instrument for use by judges at the sentencing stage and initiated a pilot test of the tool in six judicial circuits. This paper will be an overview of an evaluation conducted by the National Center for State Courts in conjunction with the VCSC Both quantitative survivial analysis techniques (Kaplan Meier and Cox Regression) and qualitative information collected by interviewing judges, probation officers and stakeholders were used to assess the validity, reliability, and usefulness of the instrument. Recommendations for modifying the instrument were offered and subsequently adopted by the VCSC. The paper serves to advance our understanding of the factors associated with recidivism, judicial response to risk instruments, and the policy implications of using assessment instruments at sentencing to divert non-violent offenders from incarceration, and is especially germane given the fiscal crisis faced by most states.

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Updated 05/20/2006