Giving people the opportunity to improve their lives enhances public safety better than punitive sentences
Courts have an obligation to formulate individualized sentences with the aim of reforming offenders, but increased caseloads have led courts to rely heavily on standardized sentencing practices. An impoverished offender sentenced to a money fine quickly becomes trapped in a cycle of poverty and recidivism as a result of spiraling fees, loss of driving privileges, and warrant-related loss of employment and housing opportunities. Specialty courts address these issues and offer individuals beneficial outcomes, but at prohibitively high costs and only to a limited target population.
Functional Sentencing turns sentencing into an opportunity to help an individual permanently exit the criminal justice system by replacing fines and costs with targeted interventions (e.g. job placement and medical services) that address the root causes of an individual’s offense. Directly incorporating these sentencing options into the court’s regular sentencing practice allows courts to achieve specialty court-level public safety gains at a fraction of the cost.
We partnered with 31st District Court to establish a limited Functional Sentencing pilot program in Hamtramck, MI. Serving as house counsel at arraignment, we screened clients for indigency, performed a basic needs assessment, recommended a sentence based on those needs, and performed a follow up interview after three months. Based on survey data and court records we found a significant improvement over traditional sentencing on the key metrics of recidivism, housing stability, economic outcomes, and trust in the courts.