NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Missouri Tells Judges Cost of Sentences

September 21, 2010

When judges in Missouri sentence convicted criminals, a new and unusual variable is available for them to consider: what a given punishment will cost the state, says the New York Times.

  • 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.  The practice has touched off a sharp debate, says the Times.  Proponents consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously.  But critics 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.

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, says the Times.

  • Michigan has closed prisons.
  • Arizona considered putting its prison system under private control.
  • California has searched for ways to shrink its incarcerated population.

Numerous legal experts on sentencing issues say Missouri's new policy makes sense.  Economic considerations play roles in all sorts of legal decisions, says Rachel E. Barkow, a law professor at New York University, so why not let judges understand the cost of their choices?

Others, like Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, argue that Missouri's plan counts certain costs but fails to measure others -- the societal price, for instance, if someone not incarcerated commits another crime.

Source: Monica Davey, "Missouri Tells Judges Cost of Sentences," New York Times, September 18, 2010.

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