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Delaware's SENTAC Program Seeks Sentencing Accountability
By Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor
Published: 09/04/2000

In a time when states are reconsidering offender sentencing to reflect the seriousness and risk of crimes, Delaware criminal justice agencies continues to use a five tier sentencing system it developed more than 10 years ago.

Delaware's SENTAC program, which stands for Sentencing and Accountability, has been described by some as risk-based sentencing but it also has elements of structured sentencing favored in states such as North Carolina.

The basic premise is to reserve incarceration for only the worst of the worst offenders and provide other sentencing alternatives for offenders committing less serious crimes. Beyond that, Delaware officials have fashioned a sentencing system that involves court judges from beginning to end that provides review of a sentence even upon release.

“It was a process that started before 1987 with enabling legislation that required the creation of a commission to come up with guidelines. It met over 2 1/2 years and involved the prosecutors, corrections, the defense bar, judiciary and representatives from the legislature. It was a real a cross section,” said Delaware Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein

Like many sentencing changes, Delaware's new system came about when officials realized that overcrowding in the state's correctional facilities was a problem.

“The motivation behind it was overcrowding problems but when the commission was called upon to make these recommendations it was charged to not just address overcrowding, but rather to come back with something logical [to answer the question] does the punishment fit the crime,” said Gebelein, who is chairman of the SENTAC Commission.

Making the punishment fit the crime under Delaware's system has a lot to do with the root causes of criminal behavior as well as public safety. For example, a property offender with a drug problem may be compelled to participate in treatment to solve the underlying substance abuse problems. Or someone who is a repetitive property offender might be placed in a work release situation.

“I think it has been reasonably successful,” Gebelein said.

The SENTAC System

According to Gebelein, one main focus of the SENTAC system is to ensure that the most violent offenders are behind bars. 'We wanted to incarcerate [on the basis of] past record and the current crime,' he said. The commission charged with revamping the sentencing system came up with five-levels of review by which to compare and sentence each offender. 

'All of these levels could be used in a sentence for any offender with the recommendation that prison be reserved for only violent offenders or those who are so repetitive that nothing else seems to work,' he said.

The five supervision levels include:

Level 5 - A prison sentence for the most violent or repetitive offenders.

Level 4 - Offender programs such as work release, home confinement or a residential treatment program.

Level 3 - Intensive probation with probation officer case loads of 35 for more intense supervision. This represents fewer cases than a typical probation officer carries.

Level 2 - Regular probation with normal caseload levels.

Level 1 - Administrative probation.

The commission developed a set of sentencing guidelines that judges are not required to follow to the letter, but do require judges to use levels 1-4 for property crimes and reserve Level 5 supervision for violent offenders.

'It is different [than other systems. The guidelines give the judge at the front end the ability to choose which types of programs the offender will progress through. The judge can set up a sentence that involves certain levels of supervision and require them to do that [during their incarceration],'  

A sentence might read, for example, that an individual might be in the custody of the DOC at Level 5, participate in a therapeutic community and when the have successfully completed these programs, then the remainder of sentence would be suspended to a half-way house facility at Level 4. When they are finished with that program, they can go to a Level 3.

'In a lot of ways it is flexible enough that it can fit into other systems. But I also think the driving goal of it is you should try to keep the system rational. You fit the punishments to achieve a rational purpose,' Gebelein said. 

Another unique feature of the system is that, unlike in many states, in Delaware once an individual is remanded to corrections all the sentences require post prison supervision. The offenders have to come back to the court for a supervision review after release. Some examples of that post-release supervision could include electronic monitoring or probation. 

Another aspect to the program post release is that he judge can impose conditions on an offender in terms of the community he lives in and the housing arrangements. 

'If you have someone who lives in a high drug area with a substance abuse problem, you might order them to go to half-way house. Frequently you see cases where an individual is in a household with criminal activity and the judge can deny the ability to live there,' Gebelein said. In addition, the probation department has the ability to inform the judiciary and make suggestions about these post release orders. 

Challenges

While the program works well to tailor sentences to offenders' true needs, the program also has some challenges. 

According to Gebelein, the most substantial issue is maintaining the resources to keep the sentencing program running the way it was intended.  'When the commission created it, it was to make sure the system and offenders were accountable. One of the things that is hard is sometimes there is a waiting list for some of these programs. We may put too many people in a work release center and sometimes we have to have people wait a while to get their programs,' he said.

There are some other criticisms too. One is that the system is more complex and therefore judges have to spend more time crafting sentencing orders to make them fit into the system.

One potential problem with the system could be the increased communication that is needed between corrections and the judiciary. Gebelein said that corrections, in order to help the offenders comply with their sentences, have to understand what the court is ordering and have the ability to go back to the court if there are problems.

Gebelein said in Delaware, the corrections agency and officials are very much in touch with the judiciary to report when a program is full and suggest other ways to comply with sentencing orders.  Officials can write a report to the judge describing the programming issue and whether or not there is a waiting period and if it will complicate the offender's change of complying with the sentence. At this point the judge makes a decision to either change the sentencing order and modify it, or leave it alone.   

'It is important in a lot of different ways to communicate. Suppose someone goes to the therapeutic community but they have problems for physical reasons. You have to know about that,' he said.

For more information about the program, contact Gebelein at 302-577-2400.
 



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