Thursday, March 29, 2007

A New Direction for Sentencing Commissions

Pam Clifton at Think Outside the Cage alerts us to the new sentencing commission bill just introduced in CO. She has a link available to the PDF for your excited perusal. It will definitely be worth your time.

I can’t say enough good about this bill. Its focus is on building an evidence-based foundation for determining what works best to reduce recidivism and victimization. Not one word about guidelines, so it avoids all the politics and problems of that. Links the new commission to Kim English’s exemplary research and evaluation unit. Has a juvenile justice expert as a required member, showing that the authors understand fully where real reduction of future crime and costs will come most from. Clear mission statement that members will be bound to: “To enhance public safety, to ensure justice, and to ensure protections of the rights of victims through the cost-effective use of public resources.” Gets it exactly right. Protect the public and rights of victims through cost-effective use of public resources. And makes its duties the collection and dissemination of what’s cost-effective and what’s not. The only negative in the bill is that the commission is sunsetted after 5 years, which just hands its opponents, who will be many if it’s successful, a fully-loaded weapon and encourages them and recalcitrant agencies that don’t want to change to hold out until the commission gets whacked. But, if the commission addresses those threats directly and strongly from the beginning, it may be able to prove its worthiness for permanence, so that’s not a deal-killer. (Having the commission’s director directly tied to the governor can be good or bad depending on the politics at any particular time and might cost you a good director and continuity when the governor leaves, but that may just be my past “director”ness seeping in. At least it doesn’t leave the director and staff floundering about direction if the commission itself dithers, which I’ve also experienced.)

Think what is possible in CO if this passes. Real evaluation of programs, treatments, sentences themselves. If a 3-year sentence accomplishes as much in lowered recidivism and victimization as a 5-year sentence at lower cost to taxpayers, then policymakers will have to address that. If the 5-year sentence gets more of each, then the extra dollars involved may look more affordable. Probation achieve as much reduction of recidivism and victims as prison for this type of offender or offense? Okay, then, what do we do? If some sentences can be established as more effective than others (and I do have my doubts generally, which raises whole other questions about what we think we’re doing with sentencing, but that’s another post), then we can hold courts and their practitioners just as or more accountable for what they’re doing with disparity, justice, effectiveness than if we had guidelines to which conformity was expected. And for those who like to use prisons as infliction of pain, fine. That can still be done. But it will have to be brought out into the open and not hidden behind now disproven assertions that the punishment is the best we can do at preventing more crime and victims. And, if this commission is successful, the results of evaluations and analyses in CO can spread to other similarly afflicted states which can develop data and results for comparisons and creation of a real nationwide system of sentence study and deliberation.

I know I get really depressing here sometimes about the future of what’s been stagnant corrections sentencing policymaking. The same old same old, pulling tools out of the kit that only work when conditions come together just right, like two full moons in one month. If this bill passes, it will take commissions in a new and more promising direction. No debates over “judicial discretion” and resulting lack of legitimacy and support. No hemming and hawing about whether prisons work or not. They’ll go out and get the evidence of when it’s the best means of stopping recidivism and victimization and when it’s not, backed by one of the premier, nationally recognized state criminal justice research agencies in the country. Then serious people can finally start having serious discussions about serious solutions to the serious problems that face that state. This will be a body able to deal quickly and authoritatively with all new research findings, including our famed “technocorrections” as well as pilot reentry programs, internal prison initiatives, and non-correctional options from other agencies and institutions. Guidelines-focused commissions haven’t done much of that, because of their historical orientations and legislative charges, and will continue to find it hard to incorporate any change in that direction. Old habits die too hard. This one won’t be bound by those traditions and structures.

And, to answer Pam’s concerns about the immediate impact, the research and data on “what works” are already there and can be put into the flow much quicker and more effectively with an audience willing to listen than guidelines would. And when it works, it will provide a new model for states dealing with similar problems, finally a new way of approaching this. I’ve been at this too long to get hopes up too high, but this truly is the best piece of news in corrections sentencing in the dozen years that I’ve focused specifically on it. When someone “the glass is half stupid” like me gets this enthusiastic about a possible policy change, you know it’s probably even better than I’m telling you. And it’s good to know Pam and TOTC will be there to cover it.

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