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Should judges be told the cost of sentencing a prisoner?
Missouri is providing judges with figures on the relative costs of prison, probation, and other forms of punishment. Budget-minded or foolhardy?
 
Judges in Missouri will now be informed of the cost of various penal options when sentencing a criminal.
Judges in Missouri will now be informed of the cost of various penal options when sentencing a criminal.
Corbis

Missouri is shaking up legal circles with a new system that informs judges how much various forms of criminal punishment will cost the state. The policy, instituted last month, has defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives applauding — saying this will encourage judges to consider alternatives to prison, such as closely monitored probation, more seriously. Meanwhile, prosecutors and other critics worry that judges will go easy on criminals to save money without considering the larger social costs of crime. Bad idea?

Kudos to Missouri for thinking outside the box: Let's hope this is the start of a "revolution," says Douglas A. Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy. "One of the strongest arguments against harsh punishments is an economic one." Tossing non-violent offenders in prison is an awfully expensive way to try to make our streets safer. Now Missouri's defense attorneys and prosecutors will have to explain why probation or prison makes sense in each case, helping us get "a good public safety bang for our prison bucks."
"Show-Me State now showing sentencing judges information about the costs of punishments"

Cost is no excuse for letting criminals off easy: It makes sense to "think about the price of prison" in certain cases, says Rodney Hart in the Quincy, IL, Herald-Whig, but we shouldn't give cost much weight. Law-abiding citizens already "pay a terrible price for crime...." If there's any danger a criminal will cause problems on the street, send them away. That won't "fix everything," but at least it puts the public's welfare first.
"Price of prison just one thing for judges to consider"

Elected officials should make these decisions: "I'm all for giving judges as much information as possible," says Brian Garst at Conservative Compendium. But the danger here is that, armed with all these numbers, judges will be making "decisions about the allocation of social resources that might best be left to the legislature." This could be a valuable experiment, but only if elected officials don't use it as an excuse to avoid sometimes tough decisions on how we spend our limited "law and order" resources. 
"Should judges consider costs?"

 

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