By Barbara Hale
Editor's note: This is the third story in a series that profiles some of the ways that Penn State, outside the classroom, is making life better for people in Pennsylvania.
A state commission along with Penn State is helping to make sure that sentences in criminal trials are handled consistently across the state and that crime victims receive appropriate compensation.
The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing was created by the state Legislature in 1978, and since the beginning Penn State has played a vital role in supporting the work of the commission. John Kramer, Penn State professor of sociology and crime, law and justice, was the first executive director of the commission, which has its headquarters at University Park.
Mark Bergstrom, the commission's current executive director, said the relationship between Penn State and the agency has been beneficial from the start.
When the commission was created, its charge was to address the disparity and undue leniency in judicial sentencing that was perceived by some to have existed at that time in certain areas of the Commonwealth. It also was charged with developing sentencing guidelines, which must be considered by all judges in Pennsylvania. The guidelines provide every judge with a common reference point for sentencing similar offenders convicted of similar crimes.
Together, commission staff and Penn State researchers have collaborated on projects that involve the analysis of data on the sentences all judges impose in Pennsylvania. They also compare the sentences the judges impose with the guidelines for sentencing the commission developed as part of its mandate. This research, Bergstrom said, amounts to an ongoing "legislative quality control" system to ensure that the law is working in the ways the Legislature intended and in ways that enhance community safety.
Over the years, as state law has changed and evolved, the commission has evolved, too. In addition to fulfilling its original mandate, with Penn State's research help, the commission is now addressing a host of other issues. In 1998, the Sentencing Commission and Penn State's new Center for Research on Crime and Justice received a two-year National Institute of Justice grant for a research partnership on intermediate punishments and victim restitution issues.
Bergstrom said that, although the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law in 1995 that made victim restitution a mandatory part of criminal sentencing, much work relating to implementation and evaluation of the legislation remains. Research also is needed to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of the use of community service, electronic monitoring, mandatory drug counseling or other forms of intermediate punishments. With the aide of the grant, the partnership members are studying these issues.
Penn State's research, said Bergstrom, helps the commission "look at the whole public safety equation -- the perpetrators and the victim, the results of the sentence as well as the sentence itself." The goal, he added, is community safety -- the result of policies that are smart and tough.
For the complete story on the collaboration between the commission and Penn State, point your Web browser to http://www.psu.edu/ur/NEWS/news/communitysafety.html.
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