Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Check, please

Kudos to Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy for highlighting Missouri's innovative new approach to sentencing:  let judges see the bill for the punishment before they hand it out.
It is the first state to provide judges with defendant-specific data on what particular sentences would cost the taxpayers, and on the likelihood that the person in the dock will reoffend.

Experts say Missouri is the only state to distribute an invoice on a case-by-case basis. ...

"We're seeing a trend where judges are asking for more evidence about best practices," said Greg Hurley, of the National Center for State Courts. "They are looking at an offender's track record and other predictive data that may show which treatments or programs may work best to cut down on recidivism."
But no other state is injecting the cost of a particular sentence into the conversation, Hurley said.
Could this become a new trend in sentencing?  Granted, the cost of a sentence shouldn't be the only factor judges consider, but judges should go into sentencing armed with information that allows them to do a reasoned cost-benefit analysis.  That way, judges can help taxpayers spend less on people who don't need expensive prison terms, and spend more on prison sentences for people who are dangerous or highly likely to reoffend.

And that makes me think of all kinds of new campaign slogans for judicial elections.  Most Missouri county judges are elected.  There's an old belief that judges must be tough on crime to win elections, but what about judges who are smart on crime?  There's more than one way to win an election, and in this recession, many voters care about state officials managing the budget rather than mangling it.  Missouri's invoicing system could give its judges some new campaign ammunition.  Instead of pointing the finger at their opponents and saying, "He let the wrong people out," judges could say, "I put the right people in and kept the wrong people out, saving you money.  What did my opponent do?"

That's a question I'd love to hear in any campaign.

-- Stowe