Probation, parole changes urged

Missouri government can save up to $12 million over five years, if it sends fewer people to prison for non-violent crimes or for probation and parole violations.

That's the conclusion of the final report from the Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections, that's been meeting since June and studying the state's prison population trends and causes.

"We're trying to achieve better results for the safety of Missouri people, at a lower expense," Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr. told reporters after testifying before the House Interim Committee on Criminal Justice.

"It's not a question about being soft on crime or hard on crime it's a question of being smart on crime, to get the best results for our people at the lowest expense."

The Working Group's 10-page report noted that Missouri's prison population has doubled during the last 20 years, and the Corrections department's spending has tripled.

And, if you go back almost 30 years, Price told the lawmakers, the number of inmates in Missouri has ballooned to five times its 1982 size, while the department's budget has climbed from $55 million a year to $665 million.

"This has been a tremendous explosion in government effort and government expenditure," Price reported," and the problem is, we really haven't gotten very much to show for it."

Although the statistics vary and "you can find different statistics depending on how you want to look at it," the former chief justice added, Missouri's crime rate generally has been "about flat " so we have made no significant improvement in the rate of crime in our communities."

But the nation as a whole launched a major prison building spree in the 1990s, to accommodate laws ordering more people to prison sentences.

Price said Missouri's statistics, developed and analyzed by the Pew Center for the States, showed that much of that population "explosion" was the result of recidivism.

"Something in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 percent of the people who are committed to prison are committed for probation and parole violations," Price explained. "We are failing in our approach, and we are spending a huge amount of money doing it."

The Working Group proposes giving probation and parole officers the authority to order someone to spend up to 48 hours in the county jail without needing to get a judge"s approval, if they violate a probation order, Price said, up to a maximum of 15 days a year.

"In drug courts, what we have found to be very effective," Price explained, "if you have a swift, certain sanction, it will change behavior ... far more than if you say, you'll go to jail a year from now, for a year."

After that, a judge could order the completion of the entire in-prison sentence that had been imposed after a conviction, but replaced with probation.

Or, the Working Group suggested, the judge could try a one-time "shock treatment" of no more than 120 days in prison.

The Working Group also proposes to concentrate the probation and parole officers' supervision time to the first two or three years of a probation period, because that's when a person convicted of a crime most likely will violate the conditions of their orders.

And those placed on probation or parole could earn a shorter period of supervision time "30 days for each 30 days they comply with the orders" resulting in their spending roughly half the ordered time on probation or parole.

If approved, the recommendations could save up to $12.6 million by June 2016, with some of the savings directed to other criminal justice system needs, such as drug courts' and a prison population reduction between 245 and 677 inmates.

The group also proposed creating an oversight committee to monitor the changes, and recommend more changes if the first steps are successful.

Companion bills soon will be introduced in the House and Senate, with the working group's various proposals.

State Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, likely will sponsor the House bill.

"It's proven to work," he told reporters. "I think that, when we have an opportunity to sit down and reason with (fellow lawmakers), they'll all see the benefits of it."

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