Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XXIX

Part XXVIII concluded a series of posts on the work of the CPSC’s Sentencing Guidelines subcommittee in creating a new set of state guidelines. This post discusses the work of the Computer Modeling subcommittee, whose challenges and controversies often paralleled those of their counterparts.

Even though the CPSC had received no “express statutory charge” from Act 283 to study or project populations and costs in its deliberations, their instructions from Governor Thompson, combined with the concerns of committee members themselves, led the Committee to work on the issue “from the very start” of their existence. Even before the Committee’s first meeting, Chairman Barland had traveled to North Carolina to examine their cost projections system, and spoken with an in-state expert on the topic, Professor Michael Smith, about developing software for cost estimates. Likewise, part of the Committee’s examinations of other state sentencing systems involved polling “technical specialists” in those states as to “how each state developed an accurate forecast of prison population and cost.” Those polls confirmed the Committee’s concerns and provided added impetus for the Committee to undertake organized efforts on the topic; each of those specialists “stressed” that “for the Committee’s work to have credibility, it must accurately forecast prison populations and costs.”

Thus, “given other states’ experiences, and the desires of Committee members,” the Committee formally moved to develop a computer-based model by which to “project the impact of criminal justice policy changes.” An additional appropriation was obtained to carry out work on the model, and Professor Smith, who was not originally a member of the CPSC, was drafted to serve on the Computer Modeling subcommittee that would oversee the effort. The report leaves little doubt as to the Committee’s personal view on the need for the model: “not to do so would have been irresponsible.” Statutory charge or not, Committee members quite clearly saw issues of cost and population projection as an essential part of their task.

Once the subcommittee was up and running, though, it immediately ran into the time and resource limitations faced by their counterparts on Sentencing Guidelines. The subcommittee faced a substantial and fundamental barrier to even beginning work on the model: “Wisconsin’s corrections data [could] not be accessed in a useful way.” Besides being stored “in an antiquated manner,” the criminal justice data maintained by agencies within the system was so fragmentary that complete data was impossible to obtain. Performance of the analyses the subcommittee desired would necessitate the use of the prison data maintained by the Department of Corrections (DOC) as well as the sentencing data maintained by the “CCAP” system used by the state courts, as the Committee needed both the criminal history information only CCAP could provide, and the prison time-served information only kept by the DOC. However, “no number identifie[d] a single offender” in both systems, rendering “access severely limited.”

And once again, time limitations prevented the subcommittee from undertaking any compensatory efforts. According to the database expert brought in to discuss merging the DOC and CCAP systems, simply linking the systems, less developing the models the Committee desired therefrom, “would be challenging even to a large research staff with a year of time to do it.” He further estimated that doing everything necessary to “develop the type of computer model the Committee was seeking” would take “perhaps as many as four or five years” to complete.

As with the guidelines, members had no choice except to seek an incomplete but expedient solution. With the help of Professor Smith, the subcommittee chose to circumvent its challenges by switching their goals to a “consumption” approach that would utilize only existing data to estimate the amount of corrections resources being consumed. Such a model could rely on DOC prison data without necessitating a link to CCAP, and “could be constructed more quickly” in order to obtain results in time for the Committee to debate its other recommendations. Having decided on the parameters of the system, the Committee contracted with a technical consulting firm to create the model. From there, the Committee used the model to validate its recommended changes in the felony classification system (with encouraging results), and also developed cost and population projections for the corrections system. Like the legislature, committee members had no means by which to predict how judges would sentence under truth-in-sentencing; thus, they published five different scenarios projecting potential changes in judicial sentencing practice.

Committee members once again expressed serious doubts. Dickey lamented the “lack of adequate data, the lack of documentation which could reveal to them how the model produces its results, and the lack of time” involved in constructing the model, while Hurley criticized the model as “untested” and its data as “incomplete.” Based on their objections, both predicted that costs and populations would undergo increases much greater than the Committee had projected. But, to repeat Hurley’s caveat from before, it was “better than no proposal at all.”

Looking back over the past two sections, it is evident that Committee members had a clearly articulated and agreed-upon vision regarding both the purposes their work was going to serve, and how to go about achieving those purposes. They sought sentencing recommendations, in the form of grid ranges, which would provide comprehensive narrative guidance for judges but maintain maximal deference to judicial discretion, and a comprehensive computer model for anticipating space and resources needs within the corrections system. However, handicapped in terms of time and resources, the committee fell well short of those goals. By their own admission, members failed to establish either demonstrably accurate or useful grid ranges, or a projection model in which they had confidence. The evident result was that those goals, their accompanying challenges, and the hopes for achieving them would all come to bear on the Committee’s recommendations for the Sentencing Commission.

Part XXX will discuss the CPSC’s recommendations regarding the development of a new, second Wisconsin Sentencing Commission.

1 comment:

Kim Hunt said...

Just wanted to say I really appreciate these posts! As Pfeffer and Sutton note in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, we learn from failure and problem stories at least as much as we do from "success stories". These shjould be required reading for new sentencing commissions. Congrats.