Mo. Senate advances sentencing alternatives

Perhaps as early as today, the Missouri Senate could send the House a bill changing the way some people are supervised in the state Corrections and Probation and Parole system.

“This bill is known as the ‘Justice Reinvestment Act,’” Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, explained Wednesday afternoon.

The proposal was the result of work by two different groups — the state’s bipartisan “Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections” comprised of lawmakers, judges, officials from the governor’s and attorney general’s offices and the Corrections Department, and a separate group of victims, victims’ advocates, prosecutors and public defenders and law enforcement.

“We had the primary goals of improving public safety across the state by reinvesting savings in the Corrections system with strategies to reduce crime and recidivism in Missouri,” Goodman said. “Missouri has been spending a lot more on sentencing and corrections.

“But we haven’t been getting a better result for the Missouri taxpayers’ dollars.”

In just over 20 years, he noted, Missouri’s prison population roughly doubled from 14,074 in 1990 to 30,729 in 2011.

In 2010 alone, about three-quarters of the prison admissions were for people whose probation or parole was being revoked for violations. Many of those were people whose crimes were non-violent offenses.

Goodman said the data produced during the two groups’ work last year showed Missouri’s spending for Corrections, Probation and Parole was about 249 percent higher than in 1990, but the recidivism rate was not dropping.

Recidivism refers to former inmates who return to prison.

Goodman’s bill includes providing more “swift-and-certain sanctions” for people who violate the conditions of their probation and parole, including immediate incarceration in the county jail for 48 hours, quicker hearings in front of a judge and mandatory placement in 120-day prison “shock” programs for some offenders on first-revocation findings.

The bill also creates a 13-member commission to oversee the new law’s implementation and to calculate the effects of its operation.

A similar bill is working its way through the House.

The only successful amendment to the bill during Wednesday’s debate was a proposal by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Giradeau, to create an interim committee to study a different bill introduced right before Wednesday’s debate on Goodman’s bill.

That second bill — introduced by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City — is more than 1,000 pages long, and proposes to rewrite Missouri’s entire criminal code.

“A group of prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers worked together to do a re-drafting of the criminal code,” she said. “It’s a conversation that needs to start now.”

Justus said the Senate’s losing three lawyers to term limits at the end of the year — Goodman, Crowell and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

“I think that, with this sort of thing, it’s helpful when you have people who have practiced this sort of law to help explain it,” Justus said.

Crowell said he wanted the interim study — after the legislative session ends — so lawmakers can add their thoughts to the bill drafted by the prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Goodman told reporters after Wednesday’s session he agrees with that approach.

“Very rarely do you see a piece of legislation proposed that’s as enormous as that, and as comprehensive” even introduced in the Legislature, let alone passed, he said.

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