As crime in Florida continues to decline and state prison populations continue to exceed 100,000 inmates, policymakers and practitioners are all seeking to mitigate corrections cost by opting for less costly, but just as effective, alternatives. Judges, for example, choose less lengthy sentences or even alternatives to incarceration for roughly 60 percent of eligible (non-mandatory minimum) offenders.
Judges’ decisions to deviate from traditional sanctions are founded in evidence. Time and time again, alternatives to incarceration have improved public safety by consistently providing better recidivism outcomes for lower-risk offenders compared to traditional incarceration, particularly for individuals with mental health or substance abuse disorders. Further, there is virtually no evidence-based program that will not provide a significant return on investment. One 2003 study estimated that the average career criminal costs society roughly $1.1 million over the course of his or her lifetime. Given these statistics, Florida can’t afford to rely solely on traditional imprisonment. The state must reserve prison for dangerous offenders and prioritize the use of alternative or supplemental programs that are shown to reduce recidivism.
Judges can be given more leeway through the reevaluation of mandatory minimums or the creation of safety valves that authorize discretion in certain mandatory minimum cases, but they ultimately are held accountable by their communities. This responsibility means they have to be able to tangibly justify their sentencing decisions, and outcomes might not happen timely enough for them to do so; the typical length of measurement for a recidivism outcome is 3 years. One way to aid judges in making and substantiating the most effective and efficient sentencing decisions is to create outcome projections using a sentencing assessment instrument.
They may not look like magic 8-balls, but assessment instruments can help us better predict the future, especially when used at the sentencing level. Missouri’s Sentencing Commission developed a web tool that can produce individualized predictions of recidivism outcomes by analyzing an offender’s risk factors—including criminal history, substance abuse history, education, and other relevant information—and comparing them to previously sentenced offenders. It can also give judges an idea of the differences in cost between alternative and traditional sanctions to ensure the best return on investment. The use of a similar tool in Florida would help judges make the most effective and efficient sentencing decisions as well as better inform the public on how alternative programs can help improve public safety while conserving public dollars.
To test out Missouri’s sentencing tool, click here.
To learn more about what a similar tool could do for Florida, read our report on criminal and juvenile justice reform options for Florida or the state Government Efficiency Task Force’s final 2016 report.