Informing Judges of Sentencing Costs a Budget-Saving Tool

Expanding prison populations and revenue shortfalls have devastated state budgets across the county.  In response, Missouri is now providing judges with the average cost to incarcerate an individual for a particular crime prior to actual sentencing with an eye on increasing fiscal awareness in sentencing.  Dubbed the "Smart Sentencing Program," the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission (MOSAC) initiated the project last month.  Judges input an offender's conviction code, criminal history, and the program offers recommended sentences, the statistical likelihood of criminals with similar backgrounds committing further crimes, and the price of sentencing.

No other state provides such systematic information to judges.  The New York Times details some of the sentencing costs shared with judges: "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."

Unsurprisingly, the program has sparked controversy.  Fiscal conservatives and defense lawyers are among the program's biggest supporters, claiming that it will provide judges with valuable information and allow for greater consideration of prison alternatives.  Further, they claim that judges would never "turn their responsibilities...into a numerical equation" and solely base decisions on state finances.  On the other hand, critics, mainly prosecutors, contend that sentencing decisions should not be subject to fiscal constraints or mathematical variables and such information could perversely impact the judicial process.

This move parallels fiscal concerns that have led to various criminal justice reforms, as the Progressive States Network has previously detailed.  Groups have championed cost-effective policies that aim to reduce recidivism, lower the incarceration rate of nonviolent offenders, repeal mandatory minimums, improve community corrections systems, and invest in re-entry programs.   Understanding the true budgetary costs of imprisonment versus alternative options may be a critical tool in moving states towards saner sentencing systems.