Virginia’s sentencing guidelines include alternative sanctions based on the use of a quantitative instrument called the Nonviolent Risk Assessment (NVRA) that identifies individuals convicted of drug and property crimes that are considered to be at lower risk of recidivism. Although nondispositive, the NVRA affords judges the discretion to grant alternative sentences to eligible low‐risk defendants. In this study, we explore how judges make use of the NVRA instrument when sentencing individuals convicted of low‐level drug and property crimes. Through semistructured interviews (N=24) and inductive thematic analysis, the research team identified contextual factors that influence the use of the NVRA results, including: the availability of alternative programs in a community, the role of court actors, particularly prosecutors, in shaping the sentencing outcomes, as well as an individual judge’s willingness to defer to or reject negotiated plea agreements offered by the prosecutor. Our research shows that while some judges are aware of and embrace the benefits of the instrument, others lack knowledge altogether of its function and empirical basis. We identified seven themes that account for variation in how actuarial risk is utilized in the sentencing process. Our findings provide insight into the practical challenges of using risk‐based assessment as a tool for the sentencing of low‐level convictions. As more states adopt risk‐based approaches to sentencing, studying Virginia, which has gone farther than other states in legislating this strategy, becomes increasingly important.


Metz, Anne and Monahan, John and Garrett, Brandon L. and Siebert, Luke, Risk and Resources: A Qualitative Perspective on Low-Level Sentencing in Virginia (August 15, 2019). Journal of Community Psychology 2019; 47: 1476-1492; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2019-47; Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2019-53. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3437750

Anne Metz

University of Lynchburg

Anne Metz is an Assistant Professor and Clinical Coordinator of the Counselor Education Program at the University of Lynchburg. She teaches Counseling Theories, Abnormal Behavior, Human Development, and Marriage and Family Therapy. She also enjoys clinical supervision and teaches the Counselor Education Program’s clinical mental health practicum course. Her research focuses on the intersection of mental health and the law.

John Monahan

University of Virginia School of Law

John Monahan is a John S. Shannon Distinguished Professor of Law, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatric Medicine at University of Virginia School of Law. Professor Monahan is a psychologist, teaches and writes about how courts use behavioral science evidence, violence risk assessment, criminology and mental health law. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and serves on the National Research Council.

Brandon L. Garrett

Associate Reporter, Policing Principles

Brandon L. Garrett is the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law  at Duke Law School. His research and teaching interests include criminal procedure, wrongful convictions, habeas corpus, corporate crime, scientific evidence, civil rights, civil procedure and constitutional law. Garrett’s recent research includes studies of DNA exonerations and organizational prosecutions. In addition to numerous articles published in leading law journals, he is the author of five books, including: The Death Penalty: Concepts and Insights (West Academic, 2018) (with Lee Kovarsky); and End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice (Harvard University Press, 2017).

Luke Siebert

University of Virginia School of Medicine

Luke Siebert is a Masters in Public Health Candidate at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and a Research Assistant for the University of Virginia School of Law.


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