Saturday January 26, 2013

MONTPELIER -- A Vermont Senate committee is weighing a bill that would require judges to consider the expected financial costs before imposing possible sentences.

Under the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Corrections Department would develop a database that would be available to the courts listing the costs of individual sentences, including incarceration, probation, a deferred sentence, supervised community sentence, participation in a restorative justice program and others.

Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Ashe used the example of a drug offense where a judge would have information on the costs of incarceration versus putting the person into a court-mandated intensive substance abuse counseling program.

"It may be that presented with this additional information a judge might feel that there are better interventions that can be made," he said.

The head of the state’s attorney’s association and the defender general testified Friday that they welcomed more information about the costs of sentences, but they disagreed about whether to mandate that judges consider it.

"We don’t have a problem with financial costs being treated as relevant information, relative evidence in sentencing, in certain sentencing; we do have a problem with it being one of the criteria for sentencing," said Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorney’s and Sheriff’s Association.

Kranichfeld said that requiring a consideration of the financial cost to be part of the sentencing criteria would be inappropriate in many cases and could result in unfair sentences.

Of the 14 state’s attorneys in Vermont, nine weighed in on the issue, and were opposed to requiring that financial considerations be part of the sentencing criteria.

Kranichfeld argued that such a consideration would be litigated in court, using up court resources.

But Defender General Matthew Valerio told the committee that such litigation likely wouldn’t happen. Most cases result in plea agreements, which means that both sides agree to the sentences, he said.

"I don’t think that it’s an inappropriate thing for cost, in today’s day and age, to be part of a consideration. It’s what judges do all the time. They take in evidence, they listen, they weigh what’s most important, what’s least important, and they make a decision," he said. And he said he believed that financial considerations would not be high on the list of factors considered by a judge in sentencing, including public safety and the likelihood of rehabilitation.

Ashe said the bill doesn’t bind judges to make decisions based on financial costs.

"But it makes sure that they’re making the best decision in their judgment considering in an evolving world where we now appreciate that early intervention, particularly on substance abuse, is the most effective thing that we can do," he said.