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Rep. Hill files bill to allow judges to deviate from sentencing guidelines after trial

Individuals guilty of certain nonviolent offenses can currently calculate their own sentences using the guidelines, whether they plead guilty or go to trial.

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Under current Alabama law, there is very little uncertainty about what sentence someone will be facing if found guilty of certain nonviolent felony offenses.

Under Alabama’s presumptive sentencing guidelines, many first-time offenders are almost guaranteed to avoid prison time, while others with past offenses can calculate their expected sentences on a presumptive guideline worksheet.

But those guidelines would no longer be used in jury trials if a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, passes through the Alabama Legislature.

“If an individual does not want to take a plea, they have every right to a trial,” Hill told APR. “But the presumptive guidelines should not be obligatory on a sentencing judge.”

Hill spent a decade as the St. Clair County district judge, and then another decade as the county’s circuit judge.

Hill said the presumptive sentencing guidelines have been a positive as they have made sentencing more uniform across the state.

“They set up a consistency that lets everyone be sentenced roughly within the same parameters,” Hill said. “Whether an offense was in Huntsville or Mobile, there was a wide divergency of sentences.”

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Most criminal cases are already reaching plea deals according to Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts. 

Since 2016, fewer than 1 percent of criminal cases have reached the trial stage. The report doesn’t break down which types of offenses go to trial, but it stands to reason that many of those do not fall under the state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines.

Hill said he doesn’t believe the law would result in an increase in plea deals.

“I don’t think it is going to increase that number at all,” Hill said. “It just gives that discretion back to the judge. It puts it back where it was before the guidelines were ever in existence.”

The bill has been assigned to Hill’s House Judiciary Committee but has not yet been placed on the committee’s agenda.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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