the price of justice

I was enthralled by a New York Times article about how the state of Missouri systematically provides judges cost information when they are deciding how to sentence someone convicted of a serious crime. “For someone convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, for instance, a judge might now learn that a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770.”

All of these costs and guidelines are the result of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, which aggregates and summarizes the cost of justice.  It also provides other useful information, such as the expected time served as the recidivism rate (see this newsletter for some examples).  The system doesn’t capture indirect costs, such as the societal costs when someone on probation commits another crime.  But overall, this system makes excellent use of math and statistics aimed at making better decisions.  I could pore over the numbers all day, if I had the time.

With more transparent information, judges can make better information.  It’s win-win, isn’t it?

There are some downsides:

  • Some critics “say that the cost of punishment is an irrelevant consideration when deciding a criminal’s fate and that there is a risk of overlooking the larger social costs of crime.”  I agree that you can’t put a price on being a victim, but at the end of the day, costs and budgets do matter.  Someone has to pay for putting someone behind bars–it doesn’t come cheap.
  • Some judges do not really look at all the cost information.  I suppose we can’t expect everyone to enjoy studying numbers, but on the upside, it does sound like many judges do look at the numbers.
  • “To some, the concept sounds crass, and carries the prospect of unwanted consequences. Might a decision between life in prison and a death sentence be decided some day by price comparison? … Could the costs of various sentences become so widely known as to affect the decisions of jurors?”
  • “Some voiced concern about the ramifications, the methodology — even the price tag of calculating sentencing price tags.”  This is a sticky issue.  Transparency can uncover inequities in the system, and such a system aimed at cutting costs could lead to additional costs to fix any inequities.

Despite the downsides, I am always a fan of using analytical techniques to make better decisions.  Prison reform is one of my favorite topics, although I am the first to admit that I don’t have any good answers.  I am always looking for better numbers to help me shape my views, and I am glad to hear that the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission is helping to provide some of those numbers.  But this story is also a cautionary tale to nerds like me:  it is hard for politicians to acknowledge that we live in a world with limited resources, and they might not get so excited about better numbers and transparency.  Sad, but true.

If you were a juror, would you like to have access to sentencing numbers and statistics?

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