Recently, the New York Times profiled a new practice within the Missouri criminal courts. Judges are being told just how much incarceration will cost at the sentencing stage. Now, Colorado’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is toying with implementing the practice here, something that not everyone approves of.
Judges take many things into consideration at sentencing time. In Missouri, judges had been requesting cost analysis of their sentencing choices and they now have that. When sentencing someone they can now see just how much a prison sentence would cost in comparison to probation. While some worry this over-simplifies the meting out of punishment, others state it’s just one necessary piece of information that can assist judges at the sentencing stage.
These cost analysis considerations are likely being spurred by dwindling cash flows and booming prison populations. All states seem to be in crisis and looking anywhere to trim costs. If justice can be served at a lower cost that the thousands of dollars required for incarceration, is it necessarily a bad thing?
Judges didn’t get where they are for being reckless or thoughtless. They won’t be making a final sentencing decision based solely on a price tag. With this information available, however, they can weigh it as one of many considerations.
Critics worry that judges will be swayed by cost analysis and abandon true justice, that they may ignore the risk of sending a convicted felony back to the streets simply because it would be cheaper to supervise them on probation. Those critics have little faith.
As Douglas Berman of Ohio State University points out, “one of the flaws in the operation of our criminal justice system is not only the failure to be attentive to cost but an arrogance that somehow you can never put a price on justice. Long missing has been a sober realization that even if we get significant benefits from incarceration, that comes at a significant cost.” A cost that deserves to be given consideration at the sentencing stage.
What this Denver Post editorial fails to point out is that the Missouri system isn’t only detailing costs, it’s also using information like criminal record and case specifics to predict the chances that a person will reoffend if released into the community. This is exactly why the system can be applauded—because it’s encouraging an in depth look at several of the factors used by judges in the sentencing stage while offering them one additional factor, cost.