Thirty years ago, Philip B. Crosby wrote Quality Is Free, in which he explained how a business that improved its products could earn higher profits. The basic insight was that the earlier you catch a product defect, the cheaper it is to fix: Catching a defect during your outgoing quality assurance testing is a lot cheaper than dealing with a product return from a customer, which is costly in terms of labor and damage to your reputation. And both of those options are more expensive than manufacturing your product right the first time. Thus, efforts to improve quality at the front end will more than pay for themselves at the back end.
I was reminded of this when Scott Greenfield (via Doug Berman) linked to an ABC news item about Missouri’s new sentencing program. The basic idea is to bring a bit of empiricism to the judge’s sentencing decisions. The Missouri Sentencing and Advisory Commision has collected statistics on convicted persons’ recidivism rates and actual time served for various crimes committed in Missouri, and judges can now query the database through a website to learn what the typical outcomes have been for the charge and type of defendant before them.
The most interesting item in the report is section titled “Costs of Incarceration and Supervision” which shows the cost to the State of different sentences, based on the cost of services and the historical expected time served.
For example, here’s the result for an offender with a light criminal record who is conviced of Robbery in the 2nd degree:
Mitigating Sentence: Community Structured Sentence – 5 years enhanced probation @ $1,792 per year. Total Cost = $8,960 Presumptive Sentence: Shock Probation or Drug Treatment – 120-Day incarceration @ $6,294 + 5 years probation @ $1,354 per year. Total Cost = $13,064 Aggravating Sentence: Prison – 7 years prison assuming expected actual time served of 60% = 4.2 years in prison @ $16,823 per year + remaining sentence of 2.8 years on parole @ $1,354 per year. Total Cost = $74,448
This shows the real cost of cost of getting tough on crime: The heavy prison sentence costs nine times as much as probation. (And according to the site, recidivism is slightly less likely for the probationers.)
Now we can do some math. A year in prison costs $16,823, but a year of probation only costs $1,792, a difference of about $15,000. According to this site, the top of the pay scale for an experienced public defender is $120,000 a year. Therefore, a public defender need only get a combined sentence reduction of 8 years across all of his clients in an entire year to reduce the cost of the prison system enough to completely pay for his salary.
A few caveats are in order: That figure of $120,000 is only for the public defender’s salary. He also gets benefits, including an eventual retirement. In addition, the true cost of putting a public defender to work also includes the cost of stuff like support personnel, supplies, utilities, and office space. I don’t have figures for the overhead costs of public defense, so just to have some numbers to work with, let’s assume that it’s similar to the cost of engineering overhead, for which I know that a 3.5:1 ratio is reasonable, giving a fully-burdened cost of about $540,000. That raises the total number of years to 36, which we might as well round to 40.
When I started writing this, I asked Gideon how how long he thought it would take to knock a century of prison time off his clients’ sentences. It’s obviously a crazy question, but he gave me a wild-assed-guess of “over a year” or maybe just a few weeks if you do well in a big case or two. Since I assume that a PD earning at the top of the salary range gets a lot of big cases, I think it’s safe to say that he could easily save the state 40 years of prison time per year.
In other words, while I admit I haven’t seen real numbers, it seems reasonable to assume that public defense is free.