Missouri to Judges: Do you have any idea what it costs to put these people in jail?
Judges to Missouri: Actually, we didn't.
When judges here [St. Louis] sentence convicted criminals, a new and unusual variable is available for them to consider: what a given punishment will cost the State of Missouri.
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. A second-degree robber, a judge could be told, would carry a price tag of less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for a comparable prison sentence and parole afterward. The bill for a murderer’s 30-year prison term: $504,690.
This may seem a crass question, but why shouldn't the cost of imprisonment be one factor, of many, that judges weigh in their sentences? It's not as though a second degree murderer is going to get probation, but it is nice to know that a judge might have to think about what it costs to lock up a small time user or seller of marijuana. After all, someone has to pay for a judge's largesse in handing out active time to non-violent offenders such as drug users. And the people paying are not judges. Nor are they the prosecutors who are having absolute conniptions over Missouri's consideration of cost in sentencing.
[C]ritics — prosecutors especially — dismiss the idea as unseemly. They 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.
“Justice isn’t subject to a mathematical formula,” said Robert P. McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County.
The intent behind the cost estimates, he said, is transparent: to pressure judges, in the face of big bills, into sending fewer people to prison.
With all respect due to the honorable Robert P. McCulloch, Mr. McCulloch has not earned an honest dollar since he took over the office of state's attorney for St. Louis County. I define an "honest dollar" as one voluntarily transferred, by its owner, to another in return for goods or services of perceived value. All of the dollars Mr. McCulloch earns are involuntarily transferred, by people who fear, for good reason, that if they do not pay taxes they will be imprisoned by someone like Robert P. McCulloch.
I suspect that if the St. Louis County prosecutor's office had to hold a pledge drive, or a bake sale, or a car wash, to pay its bills, Mr. McCulloch's salary would be far lower. He might have to take an honest job to supplement his pay.
Judges, and prosecutors, do not generate wealth. They merely subsist on involuntarily transferred wealth generated by others, as do police, prison guards, wardens, public defenders, social workers, probation officers, legislators, and all of the other traditional "stakeholders" in the criminal justice system.
So why shouldn't they consider what it costs others to lock up an offender, versus supervised release? For that matter, doesn't Robert P. McCulloch, as a public servant charged with husbanding the resources of the citizens of Missouri, make that decision every day? Do St. Louis county prosecutors go balls to the wall every time some jerk is accused of driving 79 in a 55, or letting a passenger hold an open container of beer, insisting on jail time for petty crimes and misdemeanors? Of course not. They husband their own resources, their precious time, because they don't want to try cases until midnight 7 days a week, or to let murderers go because they were busy throwing the book at a 19 year old who tried to get into a bar with a fake ID.
No, the objection to Missouri's novel system is that it's a rabbit hole, and prosecutors know exactly how far down that rabbit hole goes. If judges are allowed to consider the cost of a prison sentence, the public may as well. The public should as well. The public, in post-industrial St. Louis County, might consider exactly what it costs to run the state's version of the war on drugs, and to prosecute other victimless crimes. God only knows where that could lead. It could lead to a lot of St. Louis County prosecutors losing their jobs, as St. Louis County voters consider whether their money is better spent on improving the county's abysmal schools than on prisons.
And if judges are to consider the cost of imprisonment, they might be encouraged, openly, to consider other societal costs that they already consider covertly when they're doing their jobs properly. Like the cost to society of taking a father away from his children for several years over a non-violent offense. Or whether a dishonest police officer or other public servant costs society more than a dishonest taxpayer (who holds an honest job as I've defined it above). Horrors!
If we go all the way down the rabbit hole, we could see judges given some actual discretion in sentencing, as opposed to mandatory minimums, structured sentencing, and other appealable guidelines. It would be just like the 1970s, dope fiends running around in the streets of St. Louis raping white women with only Dirty Harry, the Warriors, and Charles Bronson (whatever the name of his character was), standing between America and anarchy. And then, as the Russians invade the east coast, the Chinese invade the west coast, and the Cubans invade the south coast, and the Canadians invade the north coast, only the Wolverines! will fight to stave off communism.
Or not. Maybe, if judges are required to at least think about costs of sentencing, St. Louis County will actually be safer and better governed, with prison time (that is to say, someone's honest dollars) being channeled from victimless crimes to truly violent offenders.
Via Jeffrey Miron, who has a sense of humor rather like my own.