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Missouri seeks to analyze criminal sentences

Although its prison rolls have remained relatively stable over the past eight years, Missouri is looking for ways it can divert more offenders to enhanced probation and treatment programs that could save the state millions of dollars currently spent on locking people up.

An effort to analyze and revamp Missouri’s criminal sentencing practices has general support from the Supreme Court, governor and legislative leaders, who all signed off on a request for help from a nonprofit group involved with a federally funded initiative.

“What we have to get away from is the thought that simply sentencing a person to a term of incarceration makes the person better — it doesn’t,” said Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr., whose two-year turn as chief justice ended Friday. “We have to be smarter about what we’re doing.”

Although the effort has not been widely publicized yet, state officials met last month with representatives of the Public Safety Performance Project run by The Pew Center on the States. Their hope is that the Pew Center can lead a data-based analysis of the factors behind Missouri’s prison population and costs, its probation and parole programs and criminal recidivism rates, among other things.

The center already has completed similar studies in other states, including neighboring Arkansas and Kentucky, which both revamped their sentencing laws this year based on the organization’s recommendations.

In Arkansas, where the prison population doubled over the past 20 years, the Pew Center concluded that the state wasn’t using probation as much as it could, had imposed longer prison sentences for nonviolent offenses and delayed the transfer of prisoners to parole. A new Arkansas law reduces sentences for some low-level offenders while adding specialized drug treatment courts and probation and parole officers. Part of the law’s $9.4 million cost will be covered by raising the monthly fee from $25 to $35 for people on parole, probation or in alternative sentencing programs.

The Pew Center estimates that Arkansas could save $875 million in prison construction and operation expenses over the next decade.

In Kentucky, where taxpayer spending on the corrections department rose more than 300 percent since 1989, a new law similarly will reduce prison sentences for low-risk, nonviolent offenders caught with small amounts of drugs. Instead, they will be steered to treatment and alternative sentencing programs.

Missouri will be embarking on its second effort in the past decade to pare back some prison terms in favor of alternative treatments.

A 2003 Missouri law reduced the maximum sentence for the lowest level of felonies — including repeated drunken driving, passing bad checks and some drug-related charges — to four years in prison instead of five. It also allowed people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies to seek release from prison after 120 days, with the remainder of their sentences served on probation, parole or some other court-approved program. The 2003 law also allowed judges to decide whether to order some drug offenders to treatment programs instead of sending them to prison.

At the time, Missouri was nearing the end of a 10-year building boom during which it opened nine new prisons. The inmate count stood at about 30,200, and the Department of Corrections budget was $575 million.

The prisoner population has grown only slightly since then to 30,771, according to figures provided Friday by the Department of Corrections. The department is budgeted to get nearly $660 million this fiscal year.

The state’s specialized drug courts, which divert offenders to alternative treatments, now oversee about 3,000 people — the equivalent of roughly two prisons, said Price, who his nearing the end of a term as chairman of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Yet he said Missouri has the potential to greatly expand its alternatives to prison.

“The problem with incarceration is all it does is put a person in a very expensive concrete box with very expensive guards and does nothing to address the underlying difficulties” that person faces, said Price. He added: “You have to assess the criminal — what needs and risks they have to the future — and then deal with them. If you don’t deal with them, they’re not going to get better and the person will continue to rob your house.”

In 2010, the Missouri Senate narrowly passed a bill that would have diverted many people convicted of the lowest classification of felonies to treatment programs, probation or time in county jails instead of state prisons. But the bill failed to pass the House as some raised concerns that it could have applied to people who deserved to be in state prisons.

State officials hope a new analysis of Missouri’s sentencing practices can provide data to show which types of punishments or treatments are most successful at preventing particular categories of offenders from committing additional crimes in the future.

“Nobody wants cost savings at the expense of public safety. So that’s really the trick this group is going to have to work itself through,” said Missouri’s courts administrator, Greg Linhares.

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