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Pa. To Make Convicts Records Public

August 9, 2000

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A state commission voted Wednesday to let the public see sentencing records listing the race and gender of every criminal defendant in Pennsylvania and the names of the judges who sentenced them.

The release will give researchers, reporters and watchdog groups unprecedented access to the records of individual judges and will help determine whether sentences for blacks and whites or men and women are consistent.

``It opens up the door to what we really want _ to find disparities in the sentencing,″ said Charles T. Stokes, president of the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches. He said the NAACP may use the records to issue report cards on whether judges appear biased.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing voted unanimously to make the records available in response to requests from The Associated Press, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the NAACP.

The AP first reported in June that the records existed but were not available to the public.

Centre County Judge Charles Brown, one of four judges on the 11-member sentencing commission, cautioned that no records could reflect all of the factors judges consider when they hand down a sentence. But he said the records should be made public because they are paid for with public money.

``It’s almost a no-brainer,″ Brown said. The records include defendants’ prior records, severity of offenses and other factors judges use to decide sentences.

An AP analysis of sentencing records from 1996 found that blacks on average received longer sentences than whites for several types of violent crimes, even when their offenses and prior records were the same. The records did not identify sentencing judges.

All sentencing information is public but is kept separately for almost all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The commission, with 13 full-time employees and a budget this year of about $910,000, is the only statewide clearinghouse of sentencing information.

Minnesota, Washington and Virginia release information on particular judges’ records, but only Minnesota lists the races and genders of the defendants. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which tracks federal court cases, releases studies on sentencing disparities but does not release records on particular judges or defendants.

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On the Net: Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing: http://pcs.la.psu.edu

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