Getting tough on crime is often popular, but it's also expensive; and often legislators don't know how expensive until the bills come due, sometimes years down the road.
A committee of lawmakers and staff members plans to begin meeting Tuesday on ways to identify the costs of legislation better to avoid unintended or unexpected effects on the budget.
The committee was created during the most recent legislative session when the Department of Correction declared a crisis in prison overcrowding and pleaded for more state money to stave off the problem.
The department said one reason for the unanticipated increase in inmate numbers was stiffer penalties mandated by the Legislature for certain crimes.
Lawmakers responded by holding over 16 criminal justice bills into the next session so they can get a better idea of what those measures will cost the state prison system, county jails and the judiciary.
"One of the things we decided was the fiscal notes attached to criminal justice and judicial legislation were not in depth or accurate enough for us as policymakers to predict their actual consequences," said Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, an Appropriations Committee member and one of those who will be trying to devise a better system for estimating costs.
"Sometimes they just say costs can be absorbed within existing resources, which is obviously not accurate."
The Department of Corrections requested more money in its budget this year and next to deal with severe overcrowding, proposing to send prisoners out of state to a facility run by a private prison company. Instead, the Legislature approved leasing space in county jails in order to keep prisoners -- and the money spent to house them -- within Maine.
In the meantime, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will try to devise a long-term solution to the overcrowding problem.
County jails also bear the cost of increased penalties, the criminalization of conduct that was previously a civil offense, and changing sentencing practices.
"When they changed the good-time calculations (by which sentences are shortened for good behavior), it cost us 15 beds a day, or about $1,500," Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said. Better forecasting will help keep legislators accountable for budgetary consequences as well as public safety consequences of legislation, he said.
The problem of inadequate cost forecasting is not new, although it has been aggravated by legislators' inclination to pass bills that are popular when the costs will not necessarily be felt for years.
An example would be increasing the severity of a sex crime from class B to class A, which can add several years to an offender's sentence. The cost to the Department of Corrections, and ultimately taxpayers, won't be felt until the lesser term would have expired.
Bills held over for a more precise fiscal note included making it easier to charge someone with disseminating sexually explicit material, increasing penalties for repeated drunken-driving convictions, and considering other criminal conduct when sentencing for sexual assault. In each case, the bill's fiscal note indicates a likely increase in corrections and judicial costs, though not a specific amount.
Because of the vagaries of criminal conduct and the degree to which tougher penalties deter crime, estimating the cost of criminal-justice bills can be much more problematic than gauging the price of repairing a road or hiring staff. The effect also depends on judges' sentencing practices.
"The real issue for us is resources," said Grant Pennoyer, director of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review. "It's time-consuming, and there are so many bills in particular that affect the judicial department."
Departments sometimes have trouble estimating the cost of a given bill, but over time the costs of multiple changes in law add up.
"I think it's one of the reasons we're as poorly staffed as we are," said Ted Glessner, administrator of the state courts. "We generally absorb these things. It's little bites for staff and judges. Over time it has a cumulative effect and can be problematic."
"Sometimes it's more of an art than a science, trying to estimate what the costs are going to be," he said.
The Corrections Department and the judiciary will be asked to seek input on fiscal notes from defense attorneys, prosecutors and sheriffs in determining cost estimates.
Paying for corrections is much less popular than sentencing offenders. Four times in the past 15 years, voters have rejected prison bond issues, Mills said.
Costs also have killed criminal justice legislation. A bill supported by the attorney general that would have allowed juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes to split their sentence between juvenile and adult facilities did not receive the support needed from the Appropriations Committee, because the cost of housing a prisoner in a juvenile facility is more expensive.
Mills said forecasting costs accurately shouldn't deter legislation, but it will require legislators to consider the long- term financial consequences.
"If something is worthwhile passing because it has an impact on public safety, getting certain offenders off the street, then it is worthwhile booking money for; and we will have to move money in the budget to do that," Mills said.
"There will be some impact on other areas -- education, health care or other areas of public safety. The impact has to be budgeted."
The group reviewing fiscal forecasts holds its first meeting Tuesday at the State House and is scheduled to submit its final report and proposed legislation by Nov. 15.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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