Letter: County prosecutor answers questions on sentencing
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the questions posed by Mr. Hill in last week’s paper, “Why all the suspended sentences?” The questions raised reflect some of the most widely held misconceptions about the criminal justice system. It’s important that citizens are aware that not all sentences are reached by agreement and that many sentences are decided by a judge after arguments are made by prosecution and defense.
First and foremost, every court in the Commonwealth, from Abingdon to Virginia Beach, utilizes suspended periods of incarceration as one piece of an offender’s sentence. There are a variety of terms courts can condition suspended time upon—to include being of good behavior, having no contact with victims, paying restitution, complying with the rules set by a probation officer, mental health treatment, completing anger management classes, remaining drug and alcohol free, etc. The suspended jail time remains “over someone’s head” for a period of time as long as they obey all court-ordered conditions. If the person violates any of those conditions, they can be brought back to court and be made to serve whatever jail time had been suspended.
There are many reasons for including a suspended jail sentence along with actual time in jail. Courts have the responsibility to fashion criminal sentences to meet different important goals, including punishment, deterrence, community protection and rehabilitation. Imposing suspended jail time is considered to address those last two goals. Suspended incarceration “over someone’s head” motivates that person to comply with court-ordered conditions. Compliance with those specifically tailored conditions would arguably address the issues that led to the crime being committed, would decrease the likelihood that the person would reoffend, and would make the community safer.
If a defendant received a sentence without any suspended time and conditions were later violated, we would have little to no recourse. That’s why suspended time is necessary.
Mr. Hill also referred to nolle prosses. A “nolle prosse” is the way we can choose not to proceed at that time, but be able to bring the charge again later. There are a host of reasons for a nolle prosse: it is not unusual for citizens to take out charges on their own and later decide not to proceed; witnesses fail to appear; or there is not enough evidence to convict. There are also times, however, when the Commonwealth will agree to drop a less serious charge (i.e., speeding) for a guilty plea in a more serious charge (i.e., DUI). It guarantees the defendant will take responsibility for their most serious actions.
As each case is evaluated in these ways, my office continually strives for consistency, fairness, accountability and justice.
I share Mr. Hill’s hope that all our citizens will continue to make informed decisions. Due to the practicality of space limitations, this answer barely scrapes the surface of the information that could be shared in an in-depth conversation. I would encourage citizens to call me anytime you have questions.
Holly B. Smith
Gloucester County, Va.