Current Issue

Volume 83, Number 5

November 2008

Evidence-Based Judicial Discretion: Promoting Public Safety Through State Sentencing Reform

The Honorable Michael A. Wolff

Brennan Lecture

In this speech delivered for the annual Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice, the Honorable Michael Wolff offers a new way of thinking about sentencing. Instead of attempting to limit judicial discretion and increase incarceration, states should aim to reduce recidivism in order to make our communities safer. Judge Wolff uses the example of Missouri’s sentencing reforms to argue that states should adopt evidence-based sentencing, in which the effectiveness of different sentences and treatment programs are regularly evaluated. In pre-sentencing investigative reports, probation officers should attempt to quantify—based on historical data—the risk the offender poses to the community and the specific treatment that would be most likely to prevent reoffending. Judges, on their own, lack the resources to implement all of these recommendations; probation officers and others involved in sentencing should receive the same information—risk assessment data—and their recommendations should become more influential as they gain expertise.