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December 7, 2008

Making an economic case for cost-oriented sentencing and prison reforms

I am pleased to see that Professor Rachel Barkow and Joshua Libling have this effective new editorial in the Boston Herald noting that sentencing and prison reform makes good economic sense in tough times. Their piece is headlined "Sentencing laws needn’t drain us," and here are some excerpts:

Simply building more prisons isn’t a feasible solution [to prison over-crowding].  An across-the-board release of prisoners or lowering of sentences is obviously unappealing.  But the combination of the state budgetary and prison overcrowding crises offers Massachusetts an opportunity to become smarter in its sentencing policy and to adopt the best solution: using fiscal-cost forecasting for criminal sentencing.

Fiscal cost forecasting makes sentencing policy more rational in the real world of limited resources. Minnesota’s sentencing commission has developed computer models to predict the impact in terms of dollars and prison population of all changes to the state’s laws affecting criminal sentences. This early-warning system has empowered — indeed, forced — officials there to consider the costs of sentencing proposals prior to enacting them, which has allowed that state to avoid the prison overcrowding that has plagued Massachusetts....

Significantly, fiscal cost forecasting doesn’t dictate higher or lower sentences.  Sometimes states raise sentences in light of cost data, knowing that they have the resources to afford the financial outlay. Other times, states lower sentences for some crimes (particularly nonviolent crimes) in order to reserve space for violent crimes and achieve the same overall reduction in crime, but at a lesser cost.

Cost data allow more informed, more efficient and more rational use of resources.  When $1 billion is being cut from the Bay State budget and violent felons are sharing bunk space, getting more bang for the prison buck makes common sense.

December 7, 2008 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


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