Clark holds sentencing forum

Published 10:31 am Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A forum about sentencing options in the criminal justice system held Thursday drew a crowd of community members eager to learn.

Prince Edward County Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Clark, who spoke in addition to several other professionals, hosted the forum, which took place in the Farmville Train Station.

Robyn Allen, director of the Piedmont Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP), and Bonnie Morton from District 24 Probation and Parole spoke, as well as Director Reneé Trent Maxey from Piedmont Court Services.

Head of Clearview Counseling Services Jason French spoke toward the end of the event providing insight on the mental health and counseling side of criminal activity and sentencing.

“Tonight, we are focusing on sentencing options and how we come up with sentences that are appropriate for offenders. It’s not as cut and dry as you would think,” Clark said as she opened the forum.

She said when punishing criminal activity, it’s not just about if someone is guilty or if they should go to jail.

“We have some crimes that are misdemeanors, some crimes that are felonies,” said Clark. “Sentencing isn’t as easy as looking at what a charge is.”

Clark said nine times out of 10, she consults the guidelines from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.

“This is my starting place,” Clark said as she held up the book, “and I say this is my starting place because it takes into account someone’s criminal history, it takes into account the serious nature of any particular offense and it gives us a range of punishment. One thing it doesn’t take into account is what may be happening in a person’s life during the time of the offense, or … the length of time between someone committing two offenses: sometimes it’s 20 years, sometimes it’s 20 days.”

Clark said prosecutors look at mental health concerns, violent histories and whether jail or prison will be the appropriate deterrent for a person’s criminal behaviors.

Clark then introduced the guest speakers, who discussed ways their agencies assist in the sentencing process.

Allen said the ASAP office covers eight counties including Amelia, Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Prince Edward, Lunenburg and Nottoway. There are 24 ASAP organizations statewide, Allen said, as she explained the programs available through the Piedmont ASAP. Her organization plays a probationary role, rather than counseling, by offering underage possession classes, a young offenders program, zero tolerance programs, reckless and aggressive driver improvement programs and substance abuse programs in addition to others.

Allen said the organization honors police officers with a Police Recognition Ceremony each year. ASAP is 100 percent offender-funded and no tax money is used, Allen said.

Morton said District 24 Probation and Parole often sees the offenders convicted of felonies. These individuals come to Morton and her co-workers once they have been sentenced.

“We feel that if we can meet the needs of the offender to be productive members of the community then we can also meet our other goal which is public safety,” Morton said.

Maxey shared her perspective from working with Piedmont Court Services, which supervises those who are on the local probation. Her office oversees nine counties and provides classes in addition to supervising the offenders. She said she would like to see a pre-trial program added to the probation program, but funding was not available at the state level this year.

Maxey said the average age of a male on probation is 30 and the average female is 35. Last year, Maxey said there were 31 percent females and 69 percent males on probation.

“Prosecutors have quite a bit of power, and we have to be careful not to abuse that power, and I say that because charging decisions really rest with our office … so I do encourage my fellow prosecutors that we need to be looking at this from a holistic view,” Clark said.

Clark will host another forum in the spring about juvenile sentencing and offenses.

(The online version of this story has been modified to reflect the correct description of Piedmont Court Services.)