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States Turn to Technology to Calculate Prison Sentences

Human error and outdated technology have miscalculated thousands of prison sentences and cost some states millions of dollars.

America incarcerates a lot of people -- more than any other country. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. With approximately 2.4 million people behind bars, including 1.36 million in state prisons, that’s roughly 1 in 99 people locked up.

We may also have the most complex sentencing system in the world. Along with the vast number of criminal offenses (there were 4,450 federal crimes in the U.S. Code in 2008), there's an array of rules and exceptions that impact a defendant’s sentence. These include the severity of the crime, the number of offenses committed, credits for time already served, and the defendant’s criminal history.

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Not surprisingly, errors occur. In 2014, corrections officials in Nebraska discovered they used a flawed formula and miscalculated mandatory minimum sentences for more than 700 inmates, leading to the premature release of nearly 200 prisoners. In Colorado, a 2013 audit revealed that the state’s Department of Corrections incorrectly sentenced as many as 1,000 inmates. The investigation was prompted when a calculation error led to the early release of an inmate who later killed the state’s prison chief.

Sentencing can be complex, involving complicated formulas. According to Nathaniel Reitz, executive director of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which handled 15,000 cases last year, probation officers calculate sentences using a worksheet that incorporates the commission's guidelines. The commission then reviews each worksheet before it's passed onto the judge in the case. Every once in a while, Reitz said a probation officer makes an error, but the commission’s review process catches them before sentencing.

To help deal with the complexity of calculating prison sentences, a few states -- including Minnesota -- are turning to technology. Minnesota recently developed a software calculator for probation officers to use.

Michigan, which has a prison population that exceeds 40,000 inmates and another 60,000 individuals who are on parole, was using a mainframe computer program to crunch the numbers. But as David Enslin, a manager for Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget pointed out, laws constantly change, requiring new calculations, and rewriting the rules in a mainframe computer software program isn’t simple. As a result, the aging computer program couldn't keep up with the laws, and corrections workers were forced to manually compute parts of sentence calculations on paper.

In 2013, the state decided to ditch its legacy program and began installing a state-of-the-art software system that can sort through more than 200 sentencing rules and 5,000 combinations involving as many as 12,000 calculations on a daily basis. Along with factoring in changes in laws, the software program can juggle sentences that are reduced by credit for time served, good behavior and participation in prison work or education programs. It can also extend sentences for things like bad behavior and refusal to take drug or alcohol tests.

The new system will not only be faster than the old but far more accurate and less costly than hiring more staff to calculate sentences, according to Enslin. He said the new system will also reduce the amount of labor that currently goes into calculating sentences, and that the efficiencies gained will go right to the department’s bottom line. “We expect to save $1 million annually with the new system" -- with most of the savings through the avoided costs of maintaining out-of-date hardware and software.

But it's not fully operational quite yet. A pre-launch audit found that some of the time computations were off, so staff continue to make manual calculations while the rules built into the software are modified.

Michigan's new system costs $240,000 for the license, plus another $34,000 annually for support and maintenance. But despite the expense, more states may invest in something similar as states continue to reduce staff in the face of tight budgets and the prison population remains high. As Nebraska found out, a sentencing calculation error is costly: The state estimates it will cost $10 million to re-incarcerate the prisoners who were released prematurely.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Michigan's new sentencing system was offline. The system is operational while the software undergoes modifications.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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