Before we add criminal penalties, analyze what works

For years I have wondered whether our criminal justice system makes sense.

I think first about my own safety. Does our system make me safer? Does it prevent crime? Does it make prudent use of my tax dollars? Is it pragmatic?

Then I think about fairness and justice. Does our system teach criminals the lesson that will prevent them from committing crimes again? Does it prevent others from committing crimes? Do tougher penalties deter criminals from offending again? What is the system doing to prepare them for when they get out?

I want data. Rather than being driven by emotions, either of compassion or retribution, I’d like to know what actually works.

A group called NMSAFE (nmsafe.org) has done some of this homework.

NMSAFE is a coalition of about 30 organizations, from the ACLU to the New Mexico Conference of Churches. They have set out a non-political standard and analyzed 22 of the criminal justice bills from the 2017 legislative session. Their analysis may help us evaluate legislation coming up in 2018.

Four criteria are applied to each bill: Does it make New Mexico safer for children and families? Is it apolitical? Is it fiscally responsible? Is it evidence-based?

For example, a “three strikes” bill, HB54 (Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque) was introduced in 2017 to increase the list of crimes that would result in mandatory life in prison. It was one of several 2017 bills that would have added to the length of sentences. A similar bill has already been pre-filed for the 2018 session.

The NMSAFE analysis gives HB54 an F. The analysis states, “There is no evidence that three strikes laws deter violent crime because most of these crimes are not premeditated, but are instead committed in the heat of passion.”

Bills also receive analysis from the Legislative Council Service with input from relevant state agencies. This analysis, called a fiscal impact report or FIR, can be quite thorough and in-depth. FIRs sometimes include input from a number of agencies that adds information from different perspectives.

For example, the FIR for HB54 contained submissions from the Administrative Office of the Courts, Office of the Attorney General, New Mexico Sentencing Commission, Law Office of the Public Defender and Corrections Department.

This FIR noted that the cost would have been $32 million over 30 years just for the incarceration, plus other costs, such the legal cost of prosecuting these offenders, the requirement to provide them with public defender services, and other administrative costs.

What makes the NMSAFE analysis different is that it is not restricted from expressing a point of view based on its criteria.

Several other 2017 bills got low ratings from NMSAFE in part because evidence does not support the idea that longer sentences deter crime. The analyses of several bills also expressed the concern about the high cost of incarceration, an estimated $30,000-$45,000 per inmate per year.

One bill that got an A rating from NMSAFE proposes to make it easier for inmates who have served 30 years of a life sentence to qualify for parole.

The analysis not only argues that many older inmates are no longer a threat to society, it also considers the extra cost of keeping older inmates in prison, where the taxpayers are responsible for their health care.

I like that this analysis is methodical and attempts to be apolitical, though I’m not sure anyone can be completely apolitical on the highly charged issues of crime and punishment.

NMSAFE also recommends a few specific policy proposals. The most important is to require that all bills that increase criminal sentences have an appropriation attached. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s be realistic about what prison costs and make sure that we cover those costs or get serious about less expensive alternatives.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017

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