COLUMBIA — Judges in Missouri are now in a unique position. They are the only ones in the country who know the projected costs of housing prisoners before sentencing.
They also have access to a computer formula that predicts recidivism rates, which is the likelihood that an inmate will be arrested again after being released from prison.
These two reforms are part of a concerted effort to develop a sentencing matrix that reduces recidivism rates and hands out consistent punishments across counties.
Judge Gary Oxenhandler, the presiding judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit, which covers Boone and Callaway counties, said it will be challenging to bring uniformity to state sentencing, but he hopes to do so eventually.
According to a report by the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, as of June 30, 2009, 57 percent of the Boone County prison population had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Scotland County had the highest percentage of nonviolent criminals at 80 percent, while Jackson had the fewest, at 28 percent.
David Oldfield, research director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said 98 percent of incarcerated offenders eventually are released from Missouri prisons.
The average annual cost of housing a single prisoner was $16,308 in fiscal 2010. That’s $44.68 per day. According to the sentencing commission, slightly more than half the state’s inmates last year were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes.
By comparison, Oldfield said probation costs $1,354 annually, or $3.71 per day, per offender. Enhanced probation, which provides more structured activities such as GED preparation, drug counseling and career support, costs $1,792 annually per offender, or $4.91 per day, according to fiscal 2009 statistics, the most recent available for probation costs.
Oxenhandler said he believes the sentencing will have little impact on judges’ decisions, especially in violent crimes.
“In any felony with an injury, the cost is not taken into consideration," he said. "It is not how we make our decision." However, in other cases “every bit of information that we have impacts our decision, and every bit of information that affects our decision is worth having.”
Dan Knight, Boone County prosecuting attorney, worries that the sentencing data would obscure the hidden costs of criminal behavior.
“If an individual is placed on probation and then commits another crime, it will be very costly to society,” he said.
Knight cited not only the suffering of victims but also the economic costs that police and prosecutors would incur if people on probation commit more crimes. If charges are filed, he said, those costs would extend to judges and, potentially, public defenders.
“If they were in a penitentiary from the start, then the crime and all of its associated costs would have never occurred. It is extremely difficult to put a price tag on justice,” he said.
Knight said another unintended consequence could be lowering deterrence. While he does not recommend all people convicted of felonies spend time in prison, he said appropriately strong punishments deter people who might contemplate committing crimes in the future.
Oxenhandler disagreed, saying that revealing the costs of incarceration would not influence deterrence.
“The populace that is out committing crimes is not looking at sentencing data," he said. "The people who are out committing crimes don’t analyze the consequences to their actions. They don’t ask ‘What will happen when I get caught?’ They don’t think they are going to get caught.”
The formula for recidivism rates is based on 11 factors, including an inmate’s age, education, employment history, prior arrests and the severity of the crime committed. Based on the variables, judges can give aggravated sentences to high-risk offenders, mitigated sentences to low-risk offenders and presumptive sentences to those in between.
Oxenhandler said the recidivism formula has been available to judges in the past, but this is the first time it allows them to compare probation and incarceration costs immediately and online.
Judge Michael A. Wolff of the State Supreme Court is chairman of the sentencing commission. He said that in the 1990s, the state prison population grew 184 percent, in comparison to the general population’s 9 percent increase.
In the past five years, the prison growth rate has stabilized because of reforms in sentencing, re-entry programs for recently paroled inmates and drug courts, but Wolff said the prison population remains twice as high as it was in 1993.
“It is not possible to keep growing the state’s prison system without increasing taxes, and that is not something the people of Missouri want to do,” Wolff said.
He also said that the rates of re-offense for certain crimes are higher for criminals assigned to prison than for those given alternative sentences such as probation. One explanation might be that those sentenced to prison have longer and more serious criminal records.
Wolff, however, said there is another explanation for lower rates of re-offense for those receive alternative sentences. “They don’t go to prison where they would learn new criminal behavior and thinking,” he said.
Rodney Uphoff of the MU School of Law said the changes are a very good idea because they increase transparency and allow judges to make more informed decisions.
“If some judges utilize the new information to hand out shorter sentences, it may be a positive development,” he said. “The general public does not understand the financial consequences of prison, especially for nonviolent offenders.”
Uphoff, who was previously a professor at the University of Oklahoma, said people who bounced $100 checks had been been sentenced to prison for more than two years because it was a felony in that state.
“In this day and age, we can’t lock up nonviolent criminals without appreciating the financial cost,” he said. “The tax-paying public has the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”
“There are some cases where nonviolent offenders deserve prison sentences,” he said. However, “it is not a wise use of our tax dollars to incarcerate people for minor, nonviolent offenses.”