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Cutting Costs in the Criminal Justice System

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In today's New York Times, John Schwartz has an article discussing how different states are addressing the tightening budgets of their criminal justice systems.  The article, headlined "Pinched Courts Push to Collect Fees and Fines," discusses how Florida courts have implemented the aggressive plan of sending people to jail for failing to pay all of their court fees. Schwartz reports that Florida, Georgia, and Michigan have all cracked down on those who owe the court fees and fines.  While some bloggers have expressed disapproval of these state methods, fee collection is not what bothers me.  I am more disturbed by the other methods Schwartz reports courts are using to cut costs.
In his article, Schwartz reports that several states have resorted to cutbacks, some of which may prove detrimental to their criminal justice systems, to compensate for the loss of revenue from property and income tax. 

Oregon for example, plans to close its courthouses every Friday for four months in an attempt to save $3.1 million dollars. New Hampshire has taken more drastic measures by suspending civil and criminal jury trials in eight counties for a month, while postponing the filling of 59 vacant judgeships.  Maine has even given up the use of metal detectors in its courthouses.

While these cuts might be fiscally responsible, the probability that they will undercut the effectiveness of our criminal justice system is high.  While courts are limiting the security in courthouses, limiting the number of days courts will hear cases, and decreasing the number of judges on their courts, states like California and the District of Columbia are simultaneously proposing plans for the early release of prisoners.  This combination does not bode well for the safety of the American public.  The criminal justice system is at its best when it can swiftly and efficiently dole out punishments to those who deserve them.  If states and courts continue to use decreasing budgets as an excuse to limit the system's ability to operate efficiently, then there is a strong chance that we will see the crime rate increase over the next few years.  States should be placing their priority on keeping the crime rate low by reducing a criminal's opportunity to commit crime.  Public safety is a bigger issue than asking court debtor's to finally pay their fees. 

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"The criminal justice system is at its best when it can swiftly and efficiently dole out punishments to those who deserve them. If states and courts continue to use decreasing budgets as an excuse to limit the system's ability to operate efficiently, then there is a strong chance that we will see the crime rate increase over the next few years."

Like night follows day. I would, however, frame the issue not in terms of a "crime rate increase" but rather in terms of these short-sighted policies causing crimes that otherwise would not have happened. Also, not sure that I would concede any of this as "fiscally responsible". Crime erodes prosperity, which erodes productive economic activity and hurts tax revenue. Some of our cities have made huge comebacks due in part to making them livable. Policies that increase upward pressure on the crime rate, I would argue, can be penny wise and pound foolish.

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