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December 18, 2012

Fascinating Judge Posner concurrence concerning carceration costs

An otherwise unremarkable per curiam Seventh Circuit panel opinion in US v. Craig, No. 12-1262 (7th Cir. Dec. 18, 2012) (available here), affirming a 50-year sentence for the producer of child pornography is blogworthy thanks to a lengthy concurrence by Judge Richard Posner.  The full opinion is today's must-read, and here are snippets from the start and end of Judge Posner's opinion (with cites omitted):
I write separately merely to remind the district judges of this circuit of the importance of careful consideration of the wisdom of imposing de facto life sentences. If the defendant in this case does not die in the next 50 years he will be 96 years old when released (though “only” 89 or 90 if he receives the maximum good-time credits that he would earn if his behavior in prison proves to be exemplary). Maybe 50 years from now 96 will be middle-aged rather than elderly, but on the basis of existing medical knowledge we must assume that in all likelihood the defendant will be dead before his prison term expires.

Federal imprisonment is expensive to the government; the average expense of maintaining a federal prisoner for a year is between $25,000 and $30,000, and the expense rises steeply with the prisoner's age because the medical component of a prisoner’s expense will rise with his age, especially if he is still alive in his 70s (not to mention his 80s or 90s).  It has been estimated that an elderly prisoner costs the prison system between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

That is not a net social cost, because if free these elderly prisoners would in all likelihood receive Medicare and maybe Medicaid benefits to cover their medical expenses.  But if freed before they became elderly, and employed, they would have contributed to the Medicare and Medicaid programs through payroll taxes — which is a reminder of an additional social cost of imprisonment: the loss of whatever income the prisoner might lawfully have earned had he been free, income reflecting his contribution to society through lawful employment.

The social costs of imprisonment should in principle be compared with the benefits of imprisonment to the society, consisting mainly of deterrence and incapacitation.  A sentencing judge should therefore consider the incremental deterrent and incapacitative effects of a very long sentence compared to a somewhat shorter one....

Sentencing judges are not required to engage in cost-benefit analyses of optimal sentencing severity with discounting to present value.  Such analyses would involve enormous guesswork because of the difficulty of assessing key variables, including one variable that I haven’t even mentioned, because I can’t imagine how it could be quantified in even the roughest way — the retributive value of criminal punishment.  By that I mean the effect of punishment in assuaging the indignation that serious crime arouses and in providing a form of nonfinancial compensation to the victims.

But virtually all sentencing, within the usually broad statutory ranges — the minimum sentence that the judge could have imposed in this case, by making the sentences on all four counts run concurrently, as he could have done, would have been 15 years, 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e), and the maximum sentence, by making them all run consecutively, as he could also have done, would have been 120 years — involves guesswork.  I am merely suggesting that the cost of imprisonment of very elderly prisoners, the likelihood of recidivism by them, and the modest incremental deterrent effect of substituting a superlong sentence for a merely very long sentence, should figure in the judge’s sentencing decision.

December 18, 2012 at 12:03 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Interesting. Most, if not all, circuits have held that district court judges are forbidden from considering the cost of incarceration when sentencing a defendant, as it is not a sentencing factor listed in 18 U.S.C. 3553.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 18, 2012 2:03:12 PM

They certainly would not contribute payroll taxes. They are all off the books. Spending $30000 a year to prevent 100s of crimes a year is a bargain.

Judge Posner is the best of the lawyer profession. He even mentions rent seeking in his book. So this lack of awareness is grim news to the public.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 18, 2012 2:58:39 PM

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