By Dick Hall-Sizemore
Examining the projected costs of criminal justice reform enacted by the 2020 Special Session may be a bit of old news, but I think it is still useful.
The General Assembly has appropriated $27.2 million for the current biennium to support its criminal justice reform initiatives. If one includes the additional $800,000 included by the Governor in his introduced budget bill, the total is $28 million.
To be fair, $15 million of that total was in the form of one-time appropriations in the first year of the biennium. From the perspective of ongoing costs, the base budget in FY 2022 will have increased by about $10.7 million. However, much of the projected costs for some of these initiatives will not be incurred until subsequent biennia and the total overall cost will be substantially higher. Finally, some of the potential costs cannot be projected now.
The following programs are projected to have, or could have, significantly higher costs in the future:
Marcus Alert (HB 5043)—The legislation would require the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to establish in each area served by a community services board or behavioral health authority an alert system and a community-care or mobile-crisis team. The bill provides for a phased implementation. The legislature provided $3.0 million in FY 2022 for the first phase. By the time the system is fully implemented statewide in FY 2022, the projected annual cost would be $39 million.
Expanded sentence credits (HB 5148)—The legislation would increase the sentence credits that can be earned by any inmate, other than one convicted of certain violent offenses. The effective date is July 1, 2022. The legislature provided the Department of Corrections $4.5 million and 74 positions in FY 2022 to begin hiring staff to implement the bill. The funding for many of those positions will need to be “annualized” in FY 2023. Furthermore, the agency projects it will need another $7.3 million to hire additional probation and parole officers and other staff to supervise the increased numbers of offenders released.
Judge sentencing (SB 5007)—The legislation transfers the responsibility for setting a sentence in a criminal jury trial from the jury to the judge. Because juries tend to hand down harsher sentences than judges, many defendants opt for a negotiated guilty plea rather than take a chance with a jury. As a result of the legislation, there could be an increase in the number of jury trials. Depending on the extent of such increase, if any, there could be a need for additional judges, prosecutors, clerical staff, and courtroom security personnel, among other expenses. The General Assembly did not provide any additional appropriations. The bill’s proponents claim that there will not be a significant increase in the number of jury trials because prosecutors, without the threat of jury sentencing, will be compelled to offer more “reasonable” plea deals. It may be a couple of years before the effect on jury trials becomes apparent.
Here is a summary of all the additional 2021-2022 appropriations. (Each amount is the total for the biennium).
- Marcus Alert (HB 5043)–$4.0 million
- Earned sentence credits (HB 5148)—$6.3 million
- Enhanced training standards (SB 5030)–$2.2 million
- Decertification of law-enforcement officers (HB 5051)–$853,126
- Aid for local enforcement officers (budget bill)–$7.5 million
- Grants to localities for body cameras (budget bill)–$6.6 million
- State Police data sharing (SB 5030)–$444,893
- Woodrum funding (increase in prison beds)—$150,000
While $28 million is a relatively minor amount in terms of the entire Appropriation Act, it is still a significant amount of money as far I am concerned. It is more than the general fund biennial appropriation for the Department for the Blind and Vision impaired or the Department of Emergency Management, for instance. However, how does one put a value on a human life or on the value of a year spent in prison? Therefore, if these appropriations result in the diverting of a mentally-ill person from prison to treatment or in preventing that mentally-ill person from being killed by a law-enforcement officer, enabling an offender to avoid serving a sentence that is longer than is the norm for the crime he has committed, making it easier to get rid of bad cops, or increasing the level of training provided for all law-enforcement officers, then it will be money well spent.