Though theft comes in several different varieties, it all generally fits into one simple definition: You betray someone’s trust and take something that doesn’t belong to you.
If you tried to define theft based off of the sentences handed down in Park County’s courts over the past couple years, however, you might have a hard time telling they were for the same type of thing.
Consider the following crimes and sentences handed down since late 2015:
When considered individually, each of the punishments can be defended: Many of the harsh shoplifting sentences were an attempt to put a halt to a seemingly endless string of thefts from Walmart last year; several of the more severe ones are due to the defendants having prior criminal records; and several of the lighter sentences were handed to people with clean records who agreed to repay their ill-gotten gains at the time of sentencing.
But let’s zoom out for a moment: Does it really seem fair or equitable for a $25 theft to net three months in jail, a $20,000 theft one month and a $5,000 theft no time?
We would submit that it simply does not.
To be sure, jail and prison time is only one component and measure of a sentence. For example, the man who embezzled $5,162 from a local nonprofit received a felony conviction — something that may limit his job opportunities and privileges as a U.S. citizen for the rest of his life.
We also understand there are countless factors that go into a particular defendant’s sentence: How strong is the evidence against them? Did police do a good job investigating their case? Have they expressed remorse and accepted responsibility for their actions? Do they have a history of criminal conduct? Does the victim want to see their thief sit in jail or prefer to simply be paid back in a timely manner?
In short, there is an inherent risk in comparing sentences, because every case and every defendant is different. But we also believe that crimes — that is, a defendant’s actions — can and should be compared in an attempt to reach fair, consistent sentences. The disparities in the recent theft cases are not an isolated issue.
On top of that, some of the factors that affect how a defendant is treated by the criminal justice system — such as their financial means, which determine whether they can make bond or hire a top-of-the-line attorney — are unfair and inequitable.
To move toward greater fairness, we would encourage Wyoming’s lawmakers and officials in the judicial branch to explore the possibility of adopting sentencing guidelines.
The federal court system works under such rules. When a defendant appears before a U.S. District Court judge for sentencing in Casper or Cheyenne, various factors like criminal history are assigned point values in different categories and added up; the totals are ultimately plugged into a big table, which lists a limited range of possible sentences for the judge to impose.
At its best, such as a system promotes “equal justice under the law.”
Somewhere around half of the states have some form of sentencing guidelines.
In a 2008 study that reviewed the fairness and consistency of sentences in Virginia, Minnesota and Michigan, the nonprofit National Association of State Courts found that guidelines in those states, “result in greater consistency in deciding who goes to prison and for how long.”
“Guidelines also produce differentiated punishment: like cases are treated alike while unlike cases result in different degrees of punishment severity,” the authors from the association wrote. “These findings stand in marked contrast to the inconsistent and discriminatory sentencing practices documented in all three states prior to the implementation of guidelines.”
Without a doubt, a cold, hard spreadsheet cannot replace the insight of a living, breathing judge and should not impossibly bind their hands. But the same things that can make a judge good at their job — empathy and an ability to really understand a defendant — can also make it difficult for them to put a certain case in context with similar crimes, missing the forest for the trees.
That’s the essence of why we would like to see Wyoming consider sentencing guidelines: Justice may be blind, but it can’t afford to be nearsighted.