May 28, 2012
Evidence-Based Sentencing Systems are Cost-Effective: Part 9
The previous eight articles in this series are testimony to the potential of evidence based sentencing systems. Scientific and technological advances now make these systems cost-effective as well. The most cost intensive aspect of any evidence-based system are the court hearings for felons sentenced to local custody and/or supervision. There is a misconception, that in an evidence-based sentencing system, all felons would be seen in court on a regular basis (as most problem-solving courts tend to do). But science and technology has provided us with strategies and solutions that allow us to substantially reduce the need for additional court sessions and staff (the “Risk Principle”).
Validated risk/needs assessment tools developed over the past ten years allow us to determine a felon’s risk levels and how to best deal with the offender ( see “University of Cincinnatti Study on Risk Principle”) We now know that intensive supervision for low to medium risk offender (involving multiple appearances before the court) actually increases their levels of recidivism. In some jurisdictions, that understanding may actually reduce the total number of court appearances, as only those who have been determined to need intensive supervision and court monitoring would receive it. Felons who are traditionally “banked” as low-risk probationers would almost certainly be excluded. Those offenders who are considered medium risk offenders might be seen by the court on a very limited basis (perhaps one court appearance after beginning their jail sentence, with a second at the start of active probation supervision and a third at the completion of successful probation supervision). Depending on criminal background, history of violence, extent of imprisonment and other relevant factors, high-risk felons would be placed in an appropriate supervision and court monitoring track. (see video at bottom of article, for interview with Reentry Court judge Jeff Tauber, on the intensity of supervision and rehabilitative track required by serious and/or violent high risk parole violators)
A more universal fiscal concern relates to the over-staffing of problem-solving courts. The fact that many courts have more than a dozen employees attending staff meetings and court sessions is a major financial obstacle to the expansion of evidence-based sentencing systems (and other problem solving courts as well). My experience as both a drug court and reentry court judge suggests problem-solving courts are often over-staffed ( see: A Minimalist Reentry Court for Recessionary Times). My Drug Court staffings in 1990 (admittedly a long time ago) had two persons present, the probation officer personally responsible for offenders to be reviewed, and myself. In a more recent experience on the Bench (2010-2011) , the San Francisco Parole Reentry Court operated with a staff of five; judge, program coordinator, case manager, defense attorney, and parole officer. It should be acknowledged that every problem-solving court has its own staffing requirements, but the tools described above can also help keep court personnel to a minimum. The development of risk/needs assessment tools allows us to better categorize probation/parole offenders, placing them in customized court tracks, limiting the court time of program specialists, to sessions where their skills are truly needed. Similarly, technology allows us to share information and communications between program personnel and staff, limiting the need for those present in court.
Finally, even problem-solving courts with significant operating cost, have shown themselves to be cost-effective (see California Study), substantially reducing custody and other criminal justice costs, and providing enormous savings to the community as a whole. This will undoubtedly be the case for evidence-based sentencing systems as well.