Behind Bars: It's not uncommon for similar crimes to get different sentences

Monday , June 19, 2017 - 5:30 AM

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

Before my personal experience with the justice system, like many people, I had no idea how the system worked.

I didn’t know just how different sentences could be between two people charged with the same crime. It’s not at all unrealistic to say the difference could be probation versus a life sentence.

There are a lot of factors that play into the amount of time a convict receives. I’d like to say they are carefully considered ones, but that’s not exactly how it works.


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At any point in the judicial process, a single person can drastically affect your verdict — sometimes it’s the prosecutor, sometimes it’s the judge, and sometimes it’s the parole board.

Initially, a prosecutor can choose to seek a wide range of penalties by designating what charge they are filing. For example, a drug possession charge could be a class A misdemeanor or it can be enhanced up to a life sentence (5 years to life) if certain criteria are met.

These enhancements, like being in proximity to a drug-free zone (i.e. school, church, or shopping center) and possible intent to distribute, can almost always be applied. The prosecution will often use these technicalities and “over-charge” in an effort to get the accused to admit guilt to a lesser charge or a plea deal.

The vast majority of the time this is how cases are settled. But sometimes the plea deal isn’t accepted, and the case goes to trial, where the accused is either found innocent or guilty.


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I know a guy who was offered a third-degree felony and a recommendation of probation for his crime, but chose to go to trial and lost. He was sentenced to 5 years to life in prison by a judge, which is the next step in the process.

Once a person is convicted of a particular set of charges, the judge usually has some options. Typically there is a recommendation by the prosecution, which the judge will often follow but is not required to do so. The judge can choose to give probation rather than a jail or prison sentence, even if there is a minimum amount of time to be served for the charge.

When a convict is sentenced to jail, the judge chooses for how long and what if any probationary terms will be applied, as well as a myriad of other things like fines and good time eligibility.

When a convict is sentenced to prison in Utah, the judge has fewer options but still can affect the sentence. If there are multiple charges, the judge can choose to run them concurrently or consecutively, which can have a great impact on the amount of time to be served.

Also in some cases with maximum life sentences, the judge decides the minimum time that must be served.

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Once someone is sent to prison, the Board of Pardons and Parole decides how much time the offender will serve within the parameters of the sentence. For example, when a person comes to prison with a single second-degree felony, they’ll spend anywhere between 1 and 15 years in prison based solely on the board’s decision.

There are guidelines or suggestions the board can follow, but like a judge at sentencing they’re not bound to any recommendation.

Prisoners receive sentences running the full gamut with no explanations for huge variances. Sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The board was audited a couple of years ago, and major changes were recommended. The need for an improved method operation was acknowledged, but the system of indeterminate sentencing and ultimate power without bona fide checks and balances is still in place — for now.

The convict I mentioned before who passed on probation and lost his case has a “matrix” or guideline of about 6 years; however, it is very unlikely he will be sent home then because he’s currently appealing his case, still claiming his innocence.

As long as a case is in appeals, the offender has no chance whatsoever at being released before the sentence expires (meaning the maximum years are met, which in a life sentence is 99 years).

At the end of that course of action, if he’s not acquitted — which may be 15-20 years down the road as appeals can and do take that long — he will have to complete a sex offender program because of the nature of the charges. Part of that program will be admitting guilt. If he is unwilling to do that or unable to complete the program for any other reason, he will remain here until he dies.

This case is not just a one-off. I’ve ceased to be amazed by the many stories and broad range of time being served for similar crimes.

I’m told our justice system is one of the best in the world, and that may be so. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect — or even just. 

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

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