Is there already an online resource for looking up the punishments for various crimes?
April 17, 2011 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Dear Metafilter, I'm trying to create on online database of the legal status and punishment of various activities in different jurisdictions. Does this already exist?

The website would have a wiki-like format where people could post the legal status and typical punishment for various crimes (i.e. what would happen to you if you were caught in possession of X amount of illegal narcotic Y in state Z) and provide references to where the punishment is listed in a state's legal code.

I'm wondering if this project is redundant. I've snooped around a bit, but haven't stumbled across anything like it.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Here's the thing: you might be able to do this, but I'm not sure how valuable it would be.

Every state's criminal code classifies offenses into particular categories, e.g. "Class A felony" or "Class 2 misdemeanor." But there isn't really a standardized system of categories, so a one-to-one correspondence may not be possible.

Second, each state's criminal code assigns a penalty to each category of offense. More precisely, it assigns a range of potential punishments. Then you need to look at each state's sentencing guidelines to see how those are interpreted and applied. There's a lot of judicial discretion there, and there's just no accounting for it. You could get your sentence suspended entirely. But another the same judge might throw the book at you for the same offense under different circumstances.

Third, just because you get busted for one category of offense doesn't mean you'll actually go down for that offense. The prosecutor may let you plead to a lesser-included offense in exchange for giving state's evidence or just agreeing to plea guilty. Or they might not. No way to say.

In short, though you could make some kind of table linking offenses to statutory penalty ranges, such a resource would not be very useful in telling what's actually going to happen in any particular case.
posted by valkyryn at 7:57 AM on April 17, 2011

Thomson West produces 50 state statutory surveys that give the state statutes for heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine, but a) that costs (a lot of) money to access b) it's just the code sections, not the current penalties broken down by amount, so a decent amount of work is required to get from code section to "you'd be looking at X-Y years."

As for the project itself: in addition to what valkyryn said, the potential penalties will also vary a lot depending on a whole host of other factors such as prior convictions, whether the defendant is a minor, whether the offense is being tried in a drug court or a regular criminal court, and (in some states at least) whether a gun was involved. So your table would have to be very complicated.
posted by jedicus at 8:12 AM on April 17, 2011

This is what the federal Sentencing Guidelines look like. Many states will have sentencing guidelines that are equally complicated.
posted by ewiar at 8:30 AM on April 17, 2011

tl;dr version: this sort of project is why WestLaw and LexisNexis cost hundreds of dollars per month.
posted by valkyryn at 1:37 PM on April 17, 2011

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