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Missouri Judges Look At Prison Costs When Crafting Sentences

Missouri Judges Look At Prison Costs When Crafting Sentences

Whenever the issue of sentencing reform is brought up the argument inevitably turns toward the costs of incarceration on a per inmate basis.  But up until recently, those costs and considerations came to light in purely academic terms–during policy debates or congressional hearings.  In at least one state though, that’s changing.

As reported in The New York Times, Missouri judges are now given that figure–the cost of incarceration–as consideration for their sentencing decisions.  The numbers themselves are staggering, and many hope the information will help lead to more informed sentencing decisions and less burden on an already-overdrawn criminal justice system. 

Take second-degree robbery, for example.  For such a charge, according to The Times, a judge could be told that a prison sentence for the charge would be more than $50,000 while five years of intensive probation would run less than $9000.  Currently Missouri is the only state that regularly provides this kind of information to judges.  The practice is also in its beginning stages after recommendations from the state’s sentencing advisory commission determined something drastic was necessary to deal with the state’s overcrowded and overburdened prisons.

It’s information that judge’s have been asking for, according to Judge Michael A. Wolff, chairman of the sentencing commission and sitting judge of the State Supreme Court.  Judges now have access to a computer algorithm that includes an offender’s conviction code, criminal history, and other background information.  The program then spits out a range of recommended sentences that includes information about the likelihood that Missouri criminals with similar profiles (and similar sentences) might commit more crimes, and now, a price tag attached to the various sentencing options provided.

The cost information is available to attorneys as well as presiding judges.  That means that a defense attorney can now use the cost to tax payers of a range of punitive options in their arguments on behalf of their clients.  But, like other background information, the cost figures are for consideration only and judges are free to disregard the information when crafting their sentences.

Prosecutors are opposed to including the information, arguing that how much a sentence costs should have no bearing in the decision-making process.  They also note that, to date, there’s no corresponding information concerning the larger social costs of crime, and until then, considering the price tag for a particular sentence is inappropriate.

While the Missouri model is new, it is not all that unique.  Many states measure the costs of imprisonment when looking at sentences or enacting new criminal laws, but just on a more generic scale.  Furthermore, any informed discussion on the cost-benefit analysis of incarceration over alternative forms of punishment must necessarily consider a cost component, and to suggest otherwise is not only shortsighted, it’s intellectually dishonest.

Given the financial crisis gripping states and the dire state of our prisons, this is a reform measure that is pragmatic and smart.  Millions of dollars gets wasted in the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders, particularly for substance abuse related offenses, and if this tool helps reduce the number of citizens that we jail that’s a good thing.

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photo courtesy of Tim Pearce, Los Gatos via Flickr

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31 comments

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1:46PM PST on Feb 25, 2012

Judges looking at the costs - what a bunch of bunk! The judge that sentenced my 20-year old FIRST TIME OFFENDER to 10 years for stealing 2 pizzas and $20 didn't care about the costs. He could have cared less what the costs were. Could have given probation for 5-10 years the state still would have made their money.

9:37PM PDT on Oct 5, 2010

there should be a law to set the amount of controlled drugs that would qualify as drug trafficking, and to have a law that permits death sentence for exceeding a limit other than the jail sentence. This may significantly reduce the numbers ...

2:15PM PDT on Sep 23, 2010

I favor giving judges information on both the cost of various sentence alternatives and also on the expected cost=sum from i=1 to n(cost of outcome i*probability of outcome i) taking the probability of recidivism into account. Prison can be cheaper than just letting criminals run around loose committing more crimes. Connecticut has community service as an alternative to fines and or jail time for many non-violent offenses. So that should be in the list of options for sentences given to judges.

7:39PM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

Finally, someone's listening to what many lawyers and people in law enforcement have been saying for years!!!

2:53PM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

Face it. Less money coming in as people commit crimes due to homelessness, etc. means either less prison time or use the Arpaio model for incarceration. If the money isn't there to incarcerate, one way or another, it ain't gonna happen.

12:40PM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

Couldn't the inmates simply work without being payed off ? For
"light" crimes there should be an alternative, like a electronic
uncle-strap, where the criminal is not allowed to leave the house,
just take Europe for an example.

8:52AM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

I had a thought: How does this weigh in with cases where the death penalty may be a punishment? Might it be cheaper to euthanize a criminal rather than house him/her for life?

3:30AM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

There are so many things wrong with this idea as a way to attack the costs of incarceration, it's hard to know where to begin. One, the first way to stop the unreasonable costs of warehousing non-violent drug-possession convicts is to overturn prohibition of marijuana. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has all the pertinent facts related to the pointless expenditures in pursuing adult users there. In many places this would eliminate 50% of the population costs. Two, this is an invitation to the bad old days where inhumane conditions for prisoners were the norm. More so than the present day overcrowding situations. I agree with the basic premise of three hots and a cot: no tv, no conjugals, etc. I disagree with outsourcing of prisoner housing (out-of-state) and services, I want the state itself completely and directly accountable for the health, well-being, care and safety of all concerned, prisoner and public alike. Three, the police and DA already make too many decisions to pursue or NOT pursue cases based on cost. Building this in at the level of judges as well is then being penny wise and pound foolish. Especially if one considers the unconvicted felons cost to society when still at large to pursue his/her criminal activity. Not everyone unconvicted is a criminal; ideally, in our system this means they are innocent. But releasing violent criminals back onto us, is much more costly to us than the $50,000 it takes for each violent offender to be off the streets.

12:59AM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

crime in the true sense of the word being a class issue...

10:26PM PDT on Sep 21, 2010

Stupid is, as stupid does.

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