MONTPELIER — As part of an effort to curb rising corrections budgets, the Senate is contemplating legislation that would require Vermont judges to consider the cost of a sentence before handing down jail time.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it would be up to individual judges to decide whether to allow the information to influence their sentencing decisions. But with the annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in Vermont at $45,000, Sears said judges at least ought to be aware of the financial consequences of their decisions.
“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t lock somebody up for 20 years,” Sears said Tuesday. “But if we do, it’s going to cost us $650,000, in today’s dollars, and we need people in the system to be asking themselves: Is that a good investment?”
Requiring judges to consider the cost of their sentences is the most controversial provision in a bill that seeks broader reforms to the sentencing process. The bill would provide judges information about the average sentences for certain crimes — a measure aimed at remedying the disparity in sentencing across county lines. The bill also would institute a risk assessment for offenders, before sentencing, as a means of helping judges evaluate the merits of various options.
Bram Kranichfeld, the new executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said cost should have no bearing on sentencing.
“You can end up with unfair results, you can end up with arbitrary results, if a judge is required in every case to take cost into account,” Kranichfeld said.
He said state’s attorneys support efforts to track the costs of various sentencing options, and to come up with metrics that might help determine how “successful” various sentences are. But he said issues of cost should be used to shape policy, not to influence the length of a sentence in a specific case.
“If a judge was otherwise going to give someone life in prison for a horrible crime, would it be appropriate to give them less than that solely because of the cost?” Kranichfeld said. “On lower-level cases, it’s the same sort of issue. Would it be appropriate for a judge to give someone 20 days in jail if he or she thought 30 days in jail was appropriate and equitable, simply because the 10 extra days is going to cost more?”
Sears said the issue of price shouldn’t play a role in sentencing for violent crimes.
“But it maybe should have some impact on some crimes that are nonviolent in nature, which is an area we’ve been working over the past eight years trying to lower recidivism,” Sears said. “OK, I can put this baggy-pant kid in jail for awhile and it’s going to cost me $75,000, or I can put him in drug treatment and it’ll cost me $10,000. If he’s been breaking into cars and stealing stuff, you need a punishment. But with such limited resources now, maybe cost ought to be a factor in what you want to do with him.”
When considering sentencing options, Vermont statute currently directs judges to consider “the nature and circumstances of the crime, the history and character of the defendant, the need for treatment … and the risk to self, others and the community at large.”
Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees a public defense system that represents the vast majority of defendants in criminal cases, said lawyers in his office have in the past sought to use cost as a factor in sentencing. In every case, Valerio said, they have “roundly been … shot down.”
Valerio said cost should be a factor in sentencing, especially in instances when courts are weighing retribution versus rehabilitation.
“If you feel like you want to take out society’s anger with a situation on a person, rather than getting them a rehabilitative sentence, then we ought to know what that’s going to cost so you know how much you’re going to spend for society to impose its punishment,” he said.
No matter how hard the legislative and executive branches work to reduce the cost of the criminal justice system, Sears said, they’ll always need a willing partner in the judiciary.
“Because when people get (sentenced to jail),” Sears said, “(jails) can’t put up a ‘No vacancy’ sign.”
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