Monday, September 20, 2010

The Costs of Getting Tough on Crime

Missouri Judges Take Prison Costs into Account in Sentencing:

ST. LOUIS — 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.

One would think that following the greatest economic downturn in the past 30 years, with unemployment lingering near 10%, the older unemployed looking at a bleak future, more Americans without health insurance than ever, and poverty hitting a 16 year high, it makes sense for states to require judges to take into account the actual financial costs of sentencing.

Unless, of course, you're from the "get tuff" school.

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.”

Ah, the ironies of punishment: the prosecutors and other tough-on-crime types who have pushed uniform sentencing guidelines down our throats the past 25 years now suddenly believe "each case is an individual one" and should be treated as such.

As I've noted since the economic crash began two years ago, corrections is recession-proof. To my knowledge, while several states have contemplated speeding up the early release of inmates to save a buck, there have been very few inmates let out of prison early because of the recession (this includes the 5,000 California inmates released under court order due to overcrowding). Some inmates already slated for release may have had a few weeks or months shaved off, but no state has announced prison closures and released hundreds or thousands of inmates. None.

And where corrections budgets have been cut, it usually comes in the form of alternatives to incarceration and work-release programs...the very programs designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and ballooning budgets.

While I applaud the efforts in Missouri to hold prosecutors and judges financially accountable for their sentences, I wouldn't view this as a trend or the wave of the future. Crime and punishment is still the Third Rail in American politics. Touch it, and you commit political suicide.

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