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Judges Should Take Prison Costs into Account in Sentencing

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By: Will Nesbitt

I just finished reading an interesting article in the Sunday, September 19, 2010 New York Times.  The Missouri state sentencing advisory commission put into effect a sentencing practice where judges must make a cost/benefit analysis before sentencing someone to prison.  For instance, if a convicted drug offender is before a court for sentencing the judge may take into consideration the cost of prison, roughly $20,000+ yearly in most states versus intense probation focusing on drug rehabilitation costing around $5,000.  The estimated cost is figured out and presented to the judge before every convicted person is sentenced.

Missouri is the first state to implicate such a sentencing practice and has spurned quite a bit debate among the legal community.  Opponents say it is impossible to put a price tag on justice.  The court fills in an offender's conviction code, criminal history and other background, and the program spits out a range of recommended sentences, new statistical information about the likelihood that Missouri criminals with similar profiles might commit more crimes, and the various options' price tags. Supporters argue that this formula helps judges accurately determine an aspect of sentencing that they already take into consideration. 

In Ohio, many judges are aware of the expense of incarceration and many do take into account the cost when determining a person's sentence.  In fact, when I was an attorney with the Franklin County Public Defender's Office some judges would request that we advance court dates for incarcerated clients so they would spend less time in jail.  These individuals were often suffering from substance abuse problems or jailed on petty traffic/criminal offenses. 

It is well known that America's economy is suffering and our prisons are overcrowded, many serving a lengthy sentence for non-violent drug offenses.  For these individuals, imposing an expensive prison term does nothing to solve the underlying problem.