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Jim Kenyon: The Price of Justice in Perkins Case

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 3/2/2017 12:11:28 AM
Modified: 3/2/2017 12:15:56 AM

The defense hoped for a minimum prison sentence of 20 years. The prosecutor wanted more — a minimum of 30 years, if he could get it.

The judge settled on 26 years to life.

But at no time during the three-hour sentencing hearing in Windsor Superior Court Wednesday did anyone mention what it would cost Vermont taxpayers to keep Emily Perkins behind bars until the early 2040s or beyond.

A conservative estimate, by my math, puts the price tag at $1.9 million. Figuring in inflation, the total is likely to soar above $2 million.

But the cost of incarceration is rarely broached inside courtrooms. Defense lawyers know that bringing up costs will get their clients nowhere with the powers-that-be.

Prosecutors and judges play with house money, which makes it easy for them to argue that a price tag can’t be put on justice.

Well, actually, it can.

In 2010, the state of Missouri began providing its judges with cost information on individual sentences. Judges weren’t required to take the computer algorithm into consideration before handing down a sentence, but the information was available.

“One of the flaws in the operation of our criminal justice system is not only the failure to be attentive to cost but an arrogance that somehow you can never put a price on justice,” said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State University law professor, in a New York Times story about the Missouri initiative in September 2010. “Long missing has been a sober realization that even if we get significant benefits from incarceration, that comes at a significant cost.”

Vermont spent $111.8 million to keep 2,000 offenders behind bars in 2015, the most recent figures on the Department of Corrections website. In 2015, it cost $73,192 to house an offender at the state’s only prison for women in South Burlington.

I’m not suggesting that Perkins should be walking the streets anytime soon. A jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter for killing Scott Hill in a drug deal gone bad. She was also found guilty of attempted second-degree murder for shooting Emma Jozefiak, who was at Hill’s Bethel trailer on the fateful day in November 2011.

No doubt, Perkins, 30, deserves a lengthy prison sentence. But Judge Theresa DiMauro’s sentence of 26 years to life seems excessive — and expensive. (I wanted to talk with the judge, but she didn’t respond to my request through the court clerk’s office for an interview.)

I get that judges and prosecutors don’t like being second-guessed. But they’re an integral part of a criminal justice system that’s badly in need of overhaul.

Prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be lengthier than those for the same crimes in many European countries and Canada. Which helps explain why the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s overall population but accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

And as long as prosecutors such as Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill are in office, I’m afraid it’s not going to change much.

At the time of the shootings, Perkins had struggled with mental illness since her teens, and her husband — and father of her two young girls — was dying from brain cancer. She was also battling an addiction to painkillers.

“This is not a story of addiction,” Cahill told the judge. “This is a story about evil.”

It’s those kind of comments that has Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, pushing to make prosecutors more accountable.

“They’re the ones with the real power,” said Wizowaty, a former state legislator. “They play a key role in suggesting a sentence.”

That became quite clear in Missouri.

Prosecutors hated the idea of putting a cost on punishment for judges to consider. They made sure the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission’s 2010 initiative was short-lived, convincing state lawmakers that it was a bad idea to begin with.

In 2013, the Vermont Senate passed a provision in a bill that would have required judges to consider the cost of sentencing options.

But it didn’t go any further.

Before Perkins’ sentencing, I called Bobby Sand, an associate professor at Vermont Law School who served as Windsor County state’s attorney for 15 years.

Sand has become a leading voice in the criminal justice reform movement in Vermont. He reminded me that sentencing decisions go beyond prosecutors and judges.

The Legislature sets the sentencing guidelines that “largely drive the outcome,” he told me. While courts have discretion, “judges tend not to be particularly radical in departing from the guidelines set by the Legislature,” he said.

That tells me that judges and prosecutors aren’t the only ones who need to be made more aware of the costs associated with incarceration.

Along with lawmakers, the public would benefit from more price transparency. A lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach might not seem so attractive if people knew what it actually cost.

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Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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