In the world of criminal courts, the district attorney is the long arm of the law. They represent the state in criminal cases, hoping to gain a conviction, sometimes at all costs. This figure is usually interested in stiff penalties and laws that make those penalties a possibility. One District Attorney, however, is speaking out against a potential move that could strengthen criminal penalties, an odd move given his position.
DA Ballard, of the Griffin Judicial District, is the acting district attorney in Fayette, Upson, Spalding, and Pike Counties. He submitted a thoughtful editorial to the Fayette County News this week, taking an unusual position for someone with his job title.
Georgia is on the brink of passing sentencing guidelines. These guidelines would reduce judicial discretion, prescribing a specific sentence for each specific criminal law violation. So, rather than a 1-20 year sentence in which the judge could properly weigh the mitigating and aggravating circumstances, choosing an individualized sentence that would best fit the case, the judge would be locked in to a specific sentence, with little wiggle room.
Traditionally, prosecutors are all for sentencing guidelines like these. It makes their job easier as they can charge someone according to the sentence they believe that person should receive just as much as they charge them for fulfilling the elements of the crime in question. In this regard, Ballard has a unique opinion.
“Each crime is different. Each criminal is different. If we are to be fair, judges must be allowed to fit the punishment to the crime,” he says. And he’s right. With so many slight and sometimes significant differences between cases, a one size fits all approach is not the solution.
When a judge has a sentencing range (1-20 years, for instance) to work within, he can take the totality of the circumstances under consideration when determining a truly appropriate sentence. The criminal history of the defendant, the particularly gruesome details of the crime, or the mental status of the offender are just a few of the things that can affect the sentence, and rightfully so.
While some judges make bad calls when it comes to appropriate sentences, the vast majority know exactly what they are doing. Prescribing a specific sentence like the guidelines would do takes away the discretion of the judge and instead hands it to the person responsible for choosing the criminal charge the defendant is charged under, the prosecutor.
If and how the sentencing guidelines will move forward remains to be seen. Some are saying the motivation behind such guidelines is to reserve prison for the worst of the worst, providing alternatives for non violent offenders. And while this is a noble idea and one that should be explored, sentencing guidelines aren’t the only way to achieve this end.