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September 19, 2010

Missouri's new practice of providing judges sentence cost information now fit to print

Today's New York Times includes this effective article, headlined "Missouri Tells Judges Cost of Sentences," which spreads the news on the latest state sentencing innovation.  Here is how the article starts:

When judges here sentence convicted criminals, a new and unusual variable is available for them to consider: what a given punishment will cost the State of Missouri.

For someone convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, for instance, a judge might now learn that a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770. A second-degree robber, a judge could be told, would carry a price tag of less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for a comparable prison sentence and parole afterward. The bill for a murderer’s 30-year prison term: $504,690.

Legal experts say no other state systematically provides such information to judges, a practice put into effect here last month by the state’s sentencing advisory commission, an appointed board that offers guidance on criminal sentencing.

The practice has touched off a sharp debate. It has been lauded nationally by a disparate group of defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives, who consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously.

But critics — prosecutors especially — dismiss the idea as unseemly. They say that the cost of punishment is an irrelevant consideration when deciding a criminal’s fate and that there is a risk of overlooking the larger social costs of crime. “Justice isn’t subject to a mathematical formula,” said Robert P. McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County.

The intent behind the cost estimates, he said, is transparent: to pressure judges, in the face of big bills, into sending fewer people to prison. “There is no average case,” Mr. McCulloch said. “Every case is an individual case, and every victim has the right to have each case viewed individually, and every defendant has that right.”

Supporters, however, say judges would never focus exclusively on the cost of a sentence or turn their responsibilities of judgment into a numerical equation. “This is one of a thousand things we look at — about the tip of a dog’s tail, it’s such a small thing,” said Judge Gary Oxenhandler, presiding judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court and a member of the sentencing commission. “But it is almost foolish not to look at it. We live in a what’s-it-going-to-cost? society now.”

The shift here comes at a dire time for criminal justice budgets around the country, as states try to navigate conflicting, politically charged demands: to keep people safe and also cut costs. Michigan has closed prisons. Arizona considered putting its prison system under private control. California has searched for ways to shrink its incarcerated population.

Legal scholars predict that policies similar to the one in Missouri — which, unlike some other measures, might encourage cutting costs before inmates are already in prison — may soon emerge elsewhere.

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September 19, 2010 at 09:23 AM | Permalink


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I take it that if there were to come about some technical innovation that would make prison cheaper, it would be OK to increase the length of sentences? I mean, if cost is a legitimate factor to consider, it cannot, on any principled basis, be limited to only cases in which sentences will be shortened.

Or how about this: You have two offenders with similar criminal histories who commit similar offenses. Mr. A has money and can be ordered to pay the cost of his potential three year term; Mr. B is indigent and can't pay beans.

Is it just that Mr. A should serve a longer sentence?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 19, 2010 9:49:34 AM

I think the statement made by Mr. McCulloch "Justice isn't subject to a mathematical formula" couldn't be further from the truth. Quite the opposite.. has he looked that the way they calulate the points on the federal level? I think they are added & subtracted to come up with a total. It really is a shame that our judges cannot hand out sentences based on the individual and the crime. Unfortunately we are subject to mandatory minimums that have put us in this situation with having to break things down into "a cost". I sincerely hope the sentencing commission takes a long hard look at the damage that has been done as a result of the mandatory minimums.

Posted by: Brandi | Sep 19, 2010 10:07:38 AM

Again. And, again. Is any fairness owed to the prosecution and to crime victims, or is only owed to the criminal? Are these costs a subtle ex parte pressure on judges without rebuttal in court? You know judges will become cost conscious rather than safety conscious. Whether yes or no, the election opponent will use these arbitrary costs numbers against the judge, arguing waste and fraud.

Say, an average criminal commits a felony a week. The real number is closer to a felony a day. How much is each worth. Say the taxpayer is willing to spend $1000 to avoid getting mugged, and does not lose the $400 in his wallet. And the neighbor, in front of whose house, the crime took place would have discount his house $10,000 if the crime were known to all potential buyers. Multiply this total by 50 if the criminal is not busy, and by 400 if he is busy. I know lawyer math stopped at the fourth grade, but this is a fourth grade word problem. I know the lawyer can do it. Which is cheaper, incarceration or probation?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 19, 2010 1:51:01 PM

Because this benefits only the defense bar, they should be forced to provide a list of all the unreported crimes of the defendant, immunized from prosecution, with estimates of cost of environmental impact, including, but not limited to cost of injuries, drops in real estate values, police time, estimates of the effect of a climate of fear in the area, including disruption of the education of scared children, who cannot concentrate on their studies, focusing, instead, on their fear of battery.

Any judge using cost as a factor in sentencing, rather than safety, should be personally held accountable for all subsequent damages caused by the busy repeat offender. The defense lawyers and their traitor, pro-criminal agencies should be held accountable in torts. After the third conviction in life, there should be a presumption of recidivism, and inability to be personally deterred by punishment. The criminal has little choice. The judge has lots of choice compared to the criminal and should make all subsequent, foreseeable victims whole out of his assets. He should carry professional liability insurance or post his assets in bond, if he wants to bet on releasing the criminal. Why should the foreseeable victim of crime bear the cost of the totally irresponsible, biased, pro-criminal, internal traitor? End all these self-dealt lawyer and judge immunities. Theirs is among the most dangerous of enterprises, and liability is fully justified. Indeed, self-dealt immunity has no legal, moral, nor policy justification. It is unconscionable both in procedure (self-dealing) and in substance (unjust burden of horrible costs of their irresponsible conduct and legal shenanigans falling on crime victims, especially if members of a minority).

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 19, 2010 11:22:43 PM

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