Hamilton will speak before commission on federal sentencing guidelines 

Melissa Hamilton

Melissa Hamilton

Jan. 27, 2015 -- Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center, will participate Feb. 5 in a symposium before a federal judiciary commission on the use of “risk assessment” in setting federal sentencing guidelines.

Hamilton, who holds a J.D. as well as a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice, has written extensively on issues related to federal sentencing.

The daylong event at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C., is designed to give members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission a broader understanding of the scientific and legal bases of risk assessment as a potential tool that federal judges can use in meting out sentences to convicted criminals.

The commission, an independent agency of the federal judiciary, was created in 1984 as part of a sweeping law designed to make sentencing of federal defendants more uniform across the country. The commission establishes and promulgates sentencing policies and guidelines and advises Congress and the executive branch on federal crime and sentencing issues.

According to Hamilton, there is a growing interest in the potential of using scientifically-based risk assessments – based on a host of sociological and psychological factors – as a tool by federal judges when sentencing defendants. Although the idea is not new, Hamilton says, it has only recently become a topic of serious discussion in the federal system.

Approximately 12 experts from the U.S. and Canada will appear at the symposium, which will be a nonpublic event, according to Brent Newton, deputy staff director for the commission and a former UHLC adjunct professor.

Newton said commissioners will use the information they glean from the symposium as they continue to study the use of risk assessment in federal sentencing. The commissioners may later issue their own guidance or make recommendations to Congress, he said.

The panelists will discuss a wide array of issues regarding risk assessments, including logistical factors, disparity and discrimination issues, and ethical and philosophical issues.

Hamilton, who earned her J.D. at The University of Texas School of Law, said panelists are roughly divided among the legal and scientific community. But as a former police and corrections officer and current criminal law professor with a doctorate in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Texas, Hamilton said she has a view of the “middle ground” in the issues surrounding risk assessments.

Hamilton's research interests are oriented toward interdisciplinary scholarship involving interpersonal violence, sex crimes, mental health and the law, sentencing, and civil commitment. Her scholarship includes traditional legal analysis as well as empirical studies, and she regularly publishes in law reviews, policy journals, and social science periodicals.

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