Mo. Supreme Court chief calls for sentencing fixes

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's chief justice urged lawmakers Wednesday to make changes to the state's probation and parole systems to potentially save the state millions of dollars.

Chief Justice Richard Teitelman urged lawmakers in his annual State of the Judiciary address to pass measures to reduce the number of people in prison for probation and parole violations.

"I support your efforts to help make sentencing practices more cost-effective, helping Missouri to become ... both tough and smart on crime," Teitelman said, addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate.

A state work group that included lawmakers, department heads and two judges recommended changes to Missouri's sentencing laws in a December report. Teitelman was not part of the group, but the Supreme Court was represented on the panel by former Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr.

The group said the state should shorten the length of probation and parole terms and allow people who violate their probation or parole to serve shorter jail sentences. Such violations accounted for more than 40 percent of all admission to Missouri prisons in 2010, with prisoners spending an average of 10 months behind bars.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who co-chaired the state task force, said Wednesday that the support of both Price and Teitelman could persuade more lawmakers to vote for legislation codifying the changes. Kelly said he expects legislation to be filed within the next few weeks.

The December report said sentencing law changes could reduce the state's prison population by as much as 2 percent and save the state up to $16.6 million over five years.

"I think that's pretty significant," Kelly said of the potential savings. "Did (the report) go as far as some people wanted? No, but I think you've got to work your way there."

Teitelman did not address the court's recent decision to strike down a map of new state Senate districts just weeks before candidates are to begin filing for office. Some lawmakers have taken issue with the way a panel of judges redrew district lines and have talked about changing the way judges are selected.

In a statement before Teitelman's speech, Better Courts for Missouri, a group that seeks similar changes, said the court needs to increase transparency. The group's executive director, James Harris, called the actions of the Appellate Apportionment Commission "frankly bizarre" and said the court's actions need more public oversight.

"The court has taken some small steps to fix some of these problems," Harris said in the statement. "But more work needs to be done."

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