ST. LOUIS (CN) – Can you put a price tag on crime? Missouri did, and it stoked a raging debate. The Missouri Sentence Advisory Commission has made the costs of sentences available to judges online. It’s the first state to make such information so easily accessible. “I think it’s just one tool,” said Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, who heads the Commission. “You can ignore it if you like. Obviously, circumstances of the crime might dictate that. If you have a particularly heinous crime, you don’t care about cost. That person is going to prison.”
Supporters of the system hope the information will provide judges with more sentencing options and better, and cheaper, rehabilitation options. The goal is to reduce re-offender rates and help the budget of the cash-strapped state.
The sentencing cost is calculated by a formula based on factors that correlate to the risks of reoffending.
Wolff said 11 factors are considered, including the age of the offender, whether he has a previous criminal record and whether he or she has substance abuse issues.
“The idea is that everyone involved in the system has access to the same information, which really relates to, ‘What are the needs that this offender has?'” Wolff said. “What are the needs that he has to keep him from reoffending?”
Chet Pleban, a criminal defense attorney, wonders why it took so long to make such information available.
Pleban said everything has a price tag and the state does not have unlimited resources.
“To me as a taxpayer, putting on my taxpayer hat, it matters to me,” Pleban said. “And putting some guy in the penitentiary for 5 years because he stole $500 or $600 worth of stuff is not cost-effective. No prior convictions, a good track record, but he made a mistake and … warehousing him for the sake of warehousing him without regard to any rehabilitation aspect is pretty silly.
“Now, if you want to take that money and instead of locking him up, use some of those resources to reduce the amount of recidivism, I’m all for that.”
Pleban said the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality is not effective. He said the re-offender rate for prisoners is between 75 and 80 percent.
Pleban said this information could change the way the penalty phase in a criminal case is conducted, and even how jurors are selected.
Though the sentencing cost in a particular case would be available only to those with intimate knowledge of the facts of the offender, Pleban said the numbers are fair game for a jury during the penalty phase of a criminal case, when the jury is deciding whether to mete out jail time.
“I think these numbers become significant,” Pleban said. “Those 12 people on the jury that just found your client guilty, they can now consider how much the cost will be for incarcerating that particular individual for X number years versus sentencing alternatives. Those 12 people, unlike the prosecutors, those 12 people sitting in the jury box are taxpaying folks and I’m confident that the majority number of jurors will be sensitive to the economic plight to the state in which they live and the city in which they live.”
But St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough said the sentencing costs are flawed because they fail to take into account the biggest cost of all.
“They are ignoring cost to victim, which I think is substantially higher,” McCullough said.
St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Jack Banas echoed McCullough.
“I don’t think it has any purpose in a process of balancing justice,” Banas told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Justice doesn’t come down to dollars and cents. You have to look at the system as a whole picture.”
McCullough said the sentencing costs are furthering MOSAC’s agenda, which could jeopardize public safety.
While McCullough acknowledged that economic resources are limited, he doesn’t believe going light on crime is the answer.
“I think that’s certainly part of it, the economic crisis,” McCullough said. “But I think MOSAC’s history has pretty much been trying to reduce the length of sentences and reduce the prison population regardless of the ultimate costs to society.”
Cole County Presiding Judge Gary Oxenhandler said public safety is paramount in sentencing.
“We’re concerned about protecting the public,” Oxenhandler said. “I don’t want to let someone out on the street who’s going to hurt you or your kid or my kid or my neighbors.”
Oxenhandler, the only circuit judge who sits on MOSAC, said that costs are not considered in heinous crimes such as murder, rape or armed robbery.
But Oxenhandler said sentencing costs can be useful in less heinous offenses.
He said all judges know that it costs from $16,000 to $23,000 a year to send an average offender to prison, compared to around $1,400 a year for probation.
Cost is always a factor, he said.
“To suggest that judges don’t already know the cost of incarceration is incredible, because of course we do,” Oxenhandler said. “All sentencing judges know, even in a global sense, that it costs considerably more to incarcerate them than to put them on parole.”
Oxenhandler said he hopes the sentencing costs will push judges to be more innovative and will prompt lawmakers to fund more alternative programs to rehabilitate.
“We don’t live in Flush Budget City anymore, Flush Budget State or Flush Budget Country,” Oxenhandler said. “Everybody is always looking at dollars and cents.”
Wolff said the program is already working, by educating all members of Missouri’s criminal justice system about what alternatives are out there.
“I think one of the things that was a characteristic of the system before this was instituted was that the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys had no idea what the policy and programs and so forth were in the Department of Corrections and Probation and Parole,” Wolff said. “They saw it indirectly, but they didn’t have a direct link into those kinds of tools that the department has been developing over quite a few years.”