Thursday, November 15, 2007

We Need Consultants for This?

At the end of Doug Berman’s catch of this story on OH’s entry into those hallowed grounds of states with 50,000 or more inmates is this part:

[T]he General Assembly, as part of the biennial budget, convened a commission and allocated $50,000 for a consultant to reappraise the situation. The committee will take public testimony Friday in Lima.

I’m confused here. Is this “convened” commission the state’s actual sentencing commission or a new one? If they already have a commission, shouldn’t it have been active? If it exists as most commissions do, with system experts and paid staff, why do they need to hire a consultant? Isn’t that what commissions are supposed to be doing to start with? If it’s a new commission, why aren’t they just using the one they already had? What is it that happens that causes policymakers to misuse or ignore the bodies they already have available to study and make recommendations on the problems that arise in the state sentencing system, like policymakers did in WI, eventually letting the state’s second commission die even before its sunset date?

We emphasize the few states with successful commissions and guidelines and encourage other states to go to those systems, but there are very conspicuous problems with the history of commissions and guidelines that should be just as carefully studied by these states seeking remedies for their corr sent problems, too. And the exemplar states are having problems nonetheless. I was just looking at the latest stat publication of the Southern Legislative Conference, and NC, one of the revered commission states, expressly created to rein in prison pops, is still looking at huge prison pop increases at rates about average for the 16 states covered, some commission/guidelines, most not, and above some of the “not” states. They always say they’re doing better than they would have without their guidelines and commission (and extensive alternative sanctions system adopted at the same time), but if that’s success, we’re in pretty sorry shape. Let’s not forget that the first state in the game, MN, has been among the leaders in rate of prison pop increase in recent years despite resources being a major consideration for its existence. And another trophy commission for its cost-containing guidelines system in VA isn’t even mentioned in this story about how that state now is looking at building a prison a year for the near future if policy changes aren’t made.

These and the OH case just seem to show that we are still in flux at best and floundering at worst in our knowledge and application of guidelines and commission systems. We need much better examination of what works and what doesn’t not just in corrections and sentencing but in commissions and guidelines to get everyone on better paths and to be sure we aren’t missing other ways of doing things even better. We need to talk more about whether or not cost-containment and alternative sentencing really are still important in those states that created commissions for those reasons, or if disparity still plays the same important consideration. The National Association of Sentencing Commissions isn’t built to handle it beyond its annual conference, and the Pew initiative is more on coordinating and disseminating existing info than on long-term strategic planning and analysis. So where will the necessary new thought come from? You legal scholar types want to jump in?

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