Risk and Resources: A Qualitative Perspective on Low-Level Sentencing in Virginia
Journal of Community Psychology 2019; 47: 1476-1492
34 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2019
Date Written: August 15, 2019
Virginia's sentencing guidelines include alternative sanctions based on the use of a quantitative instrument called the Nonviolent Risk Assessment (NVRA) that identifies individuals convicted of drug and property crimes that are considered to be at lower risk of recidivism. Although nondispositive, the NVRA affords judges the discretion to grant alternative sentences to eligible low‐risk defendants. In this study, we explore how judges make use of the NVRA instrument when sentencing individuals convicted of low‐level drug and property crimes. Through semistructured interviews (N=24) and inductive thematic analysis, the research team identified contextual factors that influence the use of the NVRA results, including: the availability of alternative programs in a community, the role of court actors, particularly prosecutors, in shaping the sentencing outcomes, as well as an individual judge's willingness to defer to or reject negotiated plea agreements offered by the prosecutor. Our research shows that while some judges are aware of and embrace the benefits of the instrument, others lack knowledge altogether of its function and empirical basis. We identified seven themes that account for variation in how actuarial risk is utilized in the sentencing process. Our findings provide insight into the practical challenges of using risk‐based assessment as a tool for the sentencing of low‐level convictions. As more states adopt risk‐based approaches to sentencing, studying Virginia, which has gone farther than other states in legislating this strategy, becomes increasingly important.
Keywords: alternative sanction, judicial process, sentencing, sentencing guidelines
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