Truth in consequences: Virginia felons do the time

Virginia, with a maximum sentence of 10 years, may appear to be among the most lenient of the 40 states that recognize the crime of voluntary manslaughter.

According to a federal study, 29 states impose longer maximums. Twenty have a statutory maximum of 20 years or more, and nine have a maximum of 11 to 19 years, leaving Virginia one of 11 states in the 10-years-or-less category.

"On one level, you could say we're lenient," says Rick Kern, the director of the state's Criminal Sentencing Commission, "but when you measure it by time served, Virginia is among the toughest states when it comes to violent crime."

Kern says that Truth in Sentencing, a legislative program that took effect in 1995, forces Virginia inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Kern says that since then-Governor George Allen signed the Truth in Sentencing laws, Virginia criminals have served on average 92 percent of their sentences.

If Andrew Alston is average, he will serve 33 months. Having been incarcerated since he killed Walker Sisk a year ago, Alston could be freed in August 2006.

In 1997, in response to concerns expressed by the Department of Justice that the federal system's own 10-year maximum was too soft, the U.S. Sentencing Commission appointed a task force to study voluntary manslaughter.

The group found that state maximum sentences ranged from a low of six years in New Mexico to a high of life imprisonment in South Dakota. The task force also noted some incongruities. For instance, the federal system's 10-year maximum matched the maximum for embezzlement or a second offense for mailing sexual advertisements.

 One task force participant noted the irony that aggravated assault with intent to kill carries a 20-year maximum penalty. "It's conceivable," said the speaker, "that a defendant would receive a lesser sentence for killing a victim than for assaulting a victim."

According to a Virginia study, inmates convicted of voluntary manslaughter who have been previously convicted of severe violent crimes end up serving an average of 8.6 years behind bars.

"Ten years is ten years in Virginia," says Kern. "It isn't in most states."

Alston didn't qualify as a prior violent offender, prosecutor Jon Zug explains, because his Pennsylvania offense was for conspiracy, and his previous local charge– an alleged battery that his then girlfriend (the alleged victim) and his father tried to recant– was dismissed.


BOX- Jail time: Average incarcerations for voluntary manslaughter

4.1 years: Offenders with no prior violent record

6.8 years: Offenders with lesser violent records

8.6 years: Offenders with severe violent records

–source: 1998-2003 data from 2003 Annual Report of the Virginia Sentencing Commission