Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cost of Justice

Interesting new policy in Missouri--judges get info on the costs of different sentences.  Prosecutors do not like it:
“Justice isn’t subject to a mathematical formula,” said Robert P. McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County.
Isn't it though?  Having relatively fixed terms for different kinds of crimes, that is mandatory sentencing, is using math to calculate justice, right?  Ah, but prosecutors like math when it reduces the discretion of judges, and hate it when it might actually cause some judges to consider the bigger picture. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that putting people away is a very costly activity for states.  Even the Governator has figured out that it is bad for California that more $$ go to prisons than to higher education (pushing for a constitutional amendment to limit prison spending to less than higher ed).

To be clear, this does not seem to be new.  I had a relative (an ex-relative now, thankfully) who kept on breaking the law and kept getting no prison time or little prison time because it was/is a recession and the state didn't want to spend money on putting his ass in jail.  It was clearly not about justice or protecting the public (since one of his repeated crimes involved DUI), but about spending the money on this loser.

The policy, imposed by a commission of lawyers, judges and other folks, produced this:
The concept is simple: fill in an offender’s conviction code, criminal history and other background, and the program spits out a range of recommended sentences, new statistical information about the likelihood that Missouri criminals with similar profiles (and the sentences they received) might commit more crimes, and the various options’ price tags.
Using data to make decisions?  Why do that?  Information could only serve as an obstacle to ignorance.  Of course, the legislature of Missouri created this commission precisely so that decisions would be out of their hands.  If a commission makes things easier for criminals (and any effort to reduce prison populations will likely benefit the innocent and the guilty), the politicians can blame them, rather than taking the heat.  Standard legislative practice--like the military base closing commission.

Overall, this seems like a good idea to me.  Using information to make decisions is better than the alternative of using no information to make decisions.

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