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September 14, 2010

Show-Me State now showing sentencing judges information about the costs of punishments

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has this fascinating new article headlined "Missouri judges get penalty cost before sentencing." Here is how it begins:

Justice in Missouri now comes with a price tag.

It is the first state to provide judges with defendant-specific data on what particular sentences would cost the taxpayers, and on the likelihood that the person in the dock will reoffend.

Not everyone is happy about it. "I don't think it has any purpose in a process of balancing justice," complained Jack Banas, the St. Charles County prosecuting attorney. "Justice doesn't come down to dollars and cents.  You have to look at the system as a whole picture."

But Kristy Ridings, a defense lawyer practicing in St. Louis, said: "I think it's fantastic. It gives us more argument to look at alternative sentences.  There are resources in the community that are not only more effective, but cheaper."

Using information provided online, judges across the state can consider the cost of any sentence — from prison time to probation.  The information may soon be included in formal presentence reports.

Experts say Missouri is the only state to distribute an invoice on a case-by-case basis. "We're seeing a trend where judges are asking for more evidence about best practices," said Greg Hurley, of the National Center for State Courts. "They are looking at an offender's track record and other predictive data that may show which treatments or programs may work best to cut down on recidivism." But no other state is injecting the cost of a particular sentence into the conversation, Hurley said.

Barbara Tombs, of the Washington, D.C., Sentencing Commission, said states commonly require corrections officials to draw up "economic impact statements" whenever they plan to change a penalty or create a new criminal violation. Such reports include added costs of prison beds, corrections officers and probation workers.

However, Tombs said, she has never before seen numbers broken down for an individual case and handed to a judge before sentencing. "I don't know of any state doing this except Missouri," she said. "I don't know enough about it to know whether it's a good idea or not."

The cost and recidivism statistics come from the Missouri Sentence Advisory Commission, an agency created by the Legislature to help judges find appropriate sentences. While some judges may choose to ignore the data, officials expect others to consider the price tags in finding alternative sentences that may cost less and provide better rehabilitation.

The commission began publishing the information in August, after several judges suggested it. Costs are figured by a formula. The state Department of Corrections was already calculating recidivism statistics compiled from hundreds of thousands of cases over the last decade.

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, who leads the sentencing commission, said, "The court system should consider all data, including cost, when trying to decide the best way to use its resources for sentencing."  He added, "If community-based alternatives show to be more successful and cost less, judges should consider them."  Wolff noted: "Obviously, at the end of the day, it is up to the judge to decide the sentence. They are just more informed with this data."

Though I understand why Barbara Tombs might have reservations about this innovation before knowing all the details, I feel very strongly that Missouri is pioneering an important and valuable revolution in sentencing procedure.   Though I understand the instinct that case-specific sentencing justice should not be assessed only with a financial spreadsheet, I think it is critical (especially in these lean budget times) to do everything possible to ensure that criminal justice decision-makers have reliable data on the likely benefits and costs of various punishment options.

As regular readers know, I think one of the strongest arguments against harsh punishments is an economic one: incarceration is a costly way to try to improve public safety, and there are reasons to fear that, at least for some (many?) non-violent offenders, we may not generally be getting a good public safety bang for our prison bucks.   In all areas of government, decision-makers should have their policy choices informed by sound data about the costs and benefits of various potential expenditures of state resources.  We should want --- indeed, we probably should come to expect and demand as taxpayers --- that sentencing judges have sound economic cost/benefit data when making punishment choices.

Moreover, as long as all the cost data is available to all, advocates for the state and for the defendant will be able to help a sentencing judge consider different was to assess and incorporate available cost/benefit data into punishment decision-making.  Subject to whatever statutory sentencing instructions exist in Missouri, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be able to develop arguments and advocacy the urge judges in individual cases to give lots or little weight to cost issues in light of each case's unique circumstances.  In other words, in the sentencing context, we need not worry about "bean-counters" making consequential policy decisions without transparency or reasoned arguments about just when values and concerns other than just costs ought to be of greater concern than just dollars and cents.

In short, huzzah for Missouri and here is hoping other states follow suit.

September 14, 2010 at 09:42 AM | Permalink


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This is an unfair, ex parte communication. There should be an opportunity to list the crimes of the defendant, including those unknown to the authorities, with immunity for frank accounting.

Each of these crimes should have a clear enumeration of the costs of injuries, loss of business, estimated drops in real estate values. These dwarf all costs of incapacitation by several orders of magnitude.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 14, 2010 3:52:27 PM

Also, don't forget the unique post-incarceration costs of monitoring and prosecuting registered sex offenders for registry violations, including the incarceration costs. Such a breakdown can be taken from extrapolating existing cases of registration violations and aggregating them into the population as a whole. In my opinion, the real cost of incarcerating low-level sex offenders will far exceed that of any other criminal.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Sep 14, 2010 4:58:06 PM

Add in, at the federal level, the expensive bureaucracy needed to dun til death tens of thousands of destitute ex-cons as a consequence of the mindlessly futile MVRA and the high cost of get-tough-on-crime lawmaking becomes even more ridiculous and wasteful.

Posted by: John K | Sep 15, 2010 9:22:53 PM

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