SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every day, judges around the country decide the fate of criminal defendants by trying to strike the right balance between fairness and public safety. A new progressive district attorney in Philadelphia is asking his prosecutors to raise another factor with judges - the cost of incarceration. As Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports, the move has sparked a debate about whether the price of punishment belongs in courtrooms.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Philadelphia's new reform-minded district attorney Larry Krasner came into office promising to reduce prison stays. And so he's launched an experiment. At sentencing hearings, when prosecutors traditionally talk about the impact on victims and the community and the need for deterrence, they will also have to do a little math. Since the average cost of housing a prisoner for a year in Pennsylvania is $42,000, the prosecutor might say something like, judge, we are recommending four years in prison for this person. And that will cost taxpayers more than $160,000. Here's Krasner.
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LARRY KRASNER: A dollar spent on incarceration should be worth it. Otherwise, that dollar may be better spent on addiction treatment, on public education, on policing and on other types of activity that make us all safer.
ALLYN: Asking prosecutors to tell judges the taxpayer tab of putting someone away is unusual. In 2010, Missouri made a similar proposal, making cost information available to judges, but it wasn't mandatory. And University of Pennsylvania law and economics professor David Abrams says nobody ever studied whether that policy affected what kind of punishment judges handed down.
DAVID ABRAMS: I think there are going to be marginal cases where this will make a difference.
ALLYN: Not everybody in Philadelphia's criminal justice world is embracing the news. Some prosecutors say privately that they're ignoring the guidance completely. And one judge recently said he'd hold an assistant district attorney in contempt of court if the cost issue was raised again. Richard Sax isn't surprised. He spent more than 30 years as a homicide prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office before retiring last year. Here's his appraisal of Krasner's new policy.
RICHARD SAX: The words that come to mind are absurd, irrelevant, ridiculous, nonsense and horrific.
ALLYN: Sax calls the announcement a public relations stunt and says it is insulting to victims of crime.
SAX: It should have no bearing on whether society or a community or people who are at risk of being victimized should be protected from a human being, an individual.
ALLYN: And some families of crime victims agree with Sax, like Celestine Shorts of north Philadelphia. Her brother, Christopher, was fatally shot last year. She says a courtroom debate about money would be upsetting to her.
CELESTINE SHORTS: When you voluntarily hurt somebody, I think you should be accountable for your actions. Was it only set to work if it's in a budget or was it set with laws are laws and rules are rules? We have a structure.
ALLYN: But Krasner says that structure has caused America to have more criminals locked up than any other country. Krasner swats away criticism that shorter time behind bars will mean more crime.
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KRASNER: There are limits to this kind of deterrence theory when you're dealing with people whose judgment is poor, whose judgment may be impaired, whose judgment is impaired among other things by youth.
ALLYN: Yet others say the primary job of the prosecutor is to advocate for victims of crime. And sometimes that means asking for a lengthy sentence regardless of its financial debt to society. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
SIMON: And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, guest host Korva Coleman talks to NPR's Howard Berkes about a new Kentucky law that puts doctors working for coal companies in charge of diagnosing the deathly black lung disease.
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