You Ask, We Investigate: Criminal Sentencing in the Natural State

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In this week’s ‘You Ask, We Investigate’ report, Fox 24’s Katelynn Zoellner takes a closer look at criminal sentencing in Arkansas. You wanted to know how can two people who commit the same crime receive different sentences.

Once a person is convicted or pleads guilty in the Natural State, a judge decides on the appropriate punishment during what is known as the sentencing phase of a criminal case. Sentencing for criminal offenses can range from probation and community service to prison and even the death penalty.

“Every person who is sentenced for a crime in Arkansas has to be sentenced within the guidelines set by the state legislature,” said Nathan Smith, Benton County Prosecuting Attorney. “Within those guidelines, juries and judges look at the specific facts of the case and determine what punishments are appropriate.”

Smith said just because two people commit the same crime does not mean they will receive the same sentence.

“The legislature itself intended that there would be a broad range of punishment within certain crimes and the reason for that is no two defendants are alike,” he said. “Just because two people commit a robbery does not mean they should receive the same sentence. I am going to treat an 18 year old, with no criminal history, who commits a robbery, very differently than a 55-year-old who is a super habitual criminal.”

Smith said the set guidelines are designed to protect the public and give the authority to judges to distinguish which offenders should go to prison and which ones do not.

 
“It’s important for us to maintain discretion, so that we can attach the appropriate punishment to every crime and not simply try to have a one size fits all approach to public safety,” he said. “A jury actually does not really sentence people. They recommend a sentence. The judge can always depart from it if he wants to and sometimes they do.”
 
Smith said another reason why people charged with similar crimes may receive different sentences is because we have local control of the criminal justice system. Citizens serving on juries in different counties may choose to sentence similar criminals in different ways.
 
“Just like the people of Benton County get to elect their representatives and get to decide if they want to fund roads or bridges, they also get to serve on juries and determine what a particular person should be sentenced to,” Smith said. “Sometimes those decisions may be different than decisions made by people in Little Rock, Pine Bluff or Jonesboro.”
 
If there’s something in your community that you want to know more about, we want to investigate it. You can send your questions to Katelynn at KZoellner@KNWA.com.

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