Wednesday, August 23, 2006

So You Want to Start a Sentencing Commission? Part VII

Part VII of a series. Earlier parts discussed ingredients of a good commission. This part finishes those considerations.

Other Requirements for a Good Commission
A commission performing to its max will also have consistent, influential, and serious sponsors among the policymakers, adequate funding for its mission, and meaningful cooperation with the other agencies involved in sentencing (the usual suspects—courts, corrections, prosecutors, etc.—but also juvenile justice, schools, treatment providers, etc., as necessary). Often, a commission starts as an initiative of a policy entrepreneur, either a judge fed up with disparity or nonuniformity, a legislator pushing for stricter sentencing or less racial disparity, or someone in the governor’s office staking out a policy turf. If these folks end up with the clout to get a commission going, they are clearly the kind of sponsors who can support and defend a commission politically and fiscally. To the extent that they are serious about making good policy as much as or more than making their names, they can help the commission establish its legitimacy and credibility in the process.

Commissions, however, cannot let themselves be too dependent on these key benefactors, or they may find themselves without help when the benefactor moves on, finds another interest, retires, visits the Great Beyond, etc. But lack of an influential sponsor will almost always commit a commission to influence purgatory in the policy arena, at least until some sentencing-related news story hits the front page. If the legislators appointed to a commission seem pro forma appointees or lesser lights or if the governor doesn’t put upper echelon folks on it and require their actual attendance (instead of flunk . . ., er, proxies), you can tell from the beginning that the commission is more for show than go. Politically influential judges taking an active role is probably the best sign, if you have such creatures in your state, since they can pull an often skeptical judiciary along as well.

Adequate funding is the mantra of all government entities, good or bad, but it is particularly important for commissions. Most fall in that netherland of “under $1,000,000” which makes them seem insignificant and potentially irrelevant but nevertheless an easy chunk of change if budget cuts are necessary. And, if created at a time of fiscal shortage, the temptation to underfund from the beginning is usually overwhelming.

There are ways for commissions to economize, some of which we will elaborate more on later. However, for those who can’t wait, web sites can offset printing and mailing costs, making documents, forms, reports, etc., available online for user downloading (at their own expense). Partnerships and cost-sharing with other agencies can also defray costs. Hiring talented but low-cost grad students as part-time analysts can get two people for the price of one FTE (or at least three for the price of two), and getting undergrad interns for grunt work is even cheaper, especially if you can tap into programs in which courses and credit are the students’ reward in lieu of actual pay. (Again, be sure to offer report credit for their resumes as compensation and as a moral salve for their exploi . . . , er, use.)

The problem, again, as mentioned above, is that, to the extent you use means such as these successfully to defray costs in the short-run as you accomplished the top of your triaged goals, funders tend to believe that you can accomplish ALL goals into the extended future with the SAME level of funding. So don’t be shy about pointing out what ISN’T getting done or the difficulties of promising the same high levels of production in the future (if grad students and interns come to believe they’re being misused, for example—which is why you don’t misuse them in the first place). A staff of six should run between $400,000-$500,000, depending on the market, prorated for more or fewer authorized employees but recognizing that less staff will be more expensive because you’re hiring your top salaries nevertheless.

Finally, establishing productive relationships with the other players in the process is vital. Since you’ll likely have most or all of them represented on the commission anyway, those commissioners will be your initial and key links. They should always be important entry points to their constituents, although you’ll undoubtedly deal with their associates as the commission does its normal work. Your staff will need to establish personal contact with the agencies/departments as well as with the necessary professional organizations, such as the state prosecutors’ association, victims’ groups, correctional organizations, etc. Perhaps they can get staff on the agenda of workshops, conferences, training sessions, etc. It is important that the commission have faces and dispositions recognizable (preferably in a good way) to practitioners on whom it will depend for ideas and support.

Commissions may need important statewide data to supplement their own from the courts and/or DOC. Prosecutors, law enforcement, and victims’ groups may also supply useful stats and info. The state justice grant administrative office, while usually not on or linked to the commission, is an important possible data source as well as potential grant provider. So is your state Statistical Analysis Center, a criminal justice data repository and disseminator funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. As a source of grads and undergrads, universities are potentially important partners, as well as having faculty possibly interested in research using the commission’s data.

It may be that, like families, dysfunctional sentencing commissions are dysfunctional in their own special ways, but good ones all seem alike. It borders on trite to say that good commissions have involved and respected commissioners balancing the desires of their constituents with the needs for commission consensus on the public interest; experienced, politically skilled but nonpartisan chairs and talented executive directors and staff; political support; adequate funding; and cooperative (if not necessarily happy) relationships with others in the sandbox (see above). Recognize, though, that being good doesn’t guarantee long-term survival in the face of all the silliness that hits public policy. But that’s what they look like. If you can’t provide all or most of these from the start, then you should think twice about creating a commission. Again, no commission is better than a bad one (please interpret that sentence correctly).

In part VIII we'll turn to the basic commission structure.

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