Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prison costs and judicial wisdom

This article appeared in The New York Times on September 18, 2010.  Another result of the recession. 

Working with men, women and youth here in inner city Dallas has taught me that for many offenses prison is not the best solution.  As a matter of fact, prison, at least the way we do it in Texas, often makes things worse for everyone.  And, it cost us all an arm and a leg and one life after another harvested out of already weakened communities.  I'm not talking about violent crimes here or sexual crimes.  For the most part, I am talking about how we handle addicts and users. 

Read the article and consider the "cost benefit" analysis that seems to be at work in the concept.  Then, tell me what you think.

Missouri Tells Judges Cost of Sentences

Published: September 18, 2010

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.

The practice has touched off a sharp debate. It has been lauded nationally by a disparate group of defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives, who consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously.

But 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.

To read the entire story click here.

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