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September 21, 2010

Delaware editorial (strangely?) assails providing sentencing judges with punishment cost data

Following up the recent stories on Missouri's new sentencing innovations (background here and here), The News Journal (of Delaware) has this notable new editorial headlined "Judicial trends no place to solve fiscal dilemmas."  Here are excerpts:

An advisory committee established by Missouri state lawmakers has voted to begin telling judges the costs of criminal sentences on the state budgets.

For example, a judge might now learn that a second-degree robbery incarceration could be less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for prison sentence and parole, The New York Times reports....

But there are more credible efforts to reduce the cost of imprisonment without factoring in capital budgets as pre-sentencing evidence.  Reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders tops the lists.  Most states are overhauling 25 years of mandatory sentences laws that led to longer jail time for possession of crack, the rock form of the powder cocaine.

In Delaware, which has the nation's 11th-highest incarceration rate, Corrections Commissioner Carl Danberg urges state legislators to consider alternatives for nonviolent criminals. "It's significantly cheaper to supervise the person in the community," Danberg said.

Judicial trends should further the cause of justice and the rule of law, not solve fiscal dilemmas. Unfortunately, Missouri judges are being given the kind of truth-in-sentencing help that stretches the bounds of justice due to victims and defendants.

This editorial seems strange to me on a number of fronts.  First, I am not even sure I understand the reference to "Judicial trends" that appears in the headline and penultimate sentence of this editorial.  Second, it seems that the editorial favors "efforts to reduce the cost of imprisonment" such as reducing prisons sentences and "consider[ing] alternatives for nonviolent criminals."  To the extent I understand the editorial's point, I suppose it is asserting that sentencing cost considerations should ONLY be for legislators' consideration and not for judicial consideration.

But I do not quite understand the suggestion that Missouri's decision to provide judges with cost data, along with other pertinent information at sentencing about (legislatively authorized) sentencing options and recidivism trends, in any way undermines "the cause of justice and the rule of law."  In my view, neither justice nor the rule of law demands that sentencing judges operate blind to the practical costs and benefits of the various sentencing options that legislatures have made available to judges.

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September 21, 2010 at 04:34 PM | Permalink


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What is the problem? For over 20 years I have reviewed the costs of incarceration and costs of supervision data in federal PSIR's. It has been my experience that the data has little or no effect on the imposition of sentences of imprisonment.

I wish we had the costs of prosecution and indigent defense contained in the reports so we could see how much money is spent prosecuting for example, aliens charged with illegal re-entry so I could truly know how much is spent on prosecution and incarceration before they are deported again.

Posted by: k | Sep 21, 2010 9:48:49 PM

I'm wondering why legislators have any right determining sentencing in the first place. They should determine what is illegal and let the judicial branch, which isn't constantly running a re-election PR campaign, decide the punishments.

Posted by: NickS | Sep 22, 2010 7:35:23 AM

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