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.
photo courtesy of Tim Pearce, Los Gatos via Flickr