State may see less savings from corrections overhaul

The Missouri House and Senate have both passed plans this past week to overhaul the state’s probation and parole systems, but those plans may not end up saving the state as much money as originally thought.

The plans, approved by wide margins in both chambers this past week, would give non-violent parolees or probationers an additional 30 days of credit toward their sentence for every month they go without a violation.

The measures also would allow for 120-day “shock” jail sentences— instead of a longer return to prison — for some felons who violate probation or parole for the first time.

The proposed changes stem from a report last summer by a state working group charged with finding ways to reduce corrections spending, which now totals about $660 million each year.

In a much-publicized December report, the working group unveiled several policy suggestions, mostly aimed at cutting spending on probation and parole violators. The report group found that 71 percent of admissions to the state’s prisons in 2010 were people charged with violating probation or parole.

It also found the average probation term is four-and-half years— about 40 percent longer than the national average of three years and two months, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“If you can have (convicts) get through a period of two years they are dramatically less likely to re-offend, and more likely to become productive citizens, hopefully paying taxes rather than consuming them,” said Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon.

Goodman sponsored the Senate overhaul legislation and was co-chairman of the working group. The group said its proposals could have saved the state between $7.7 million and $16 million by 2017.

But financial estimates included with the legislation implementing those suggestions say the state would likely see a net savings of less than $1 million over the next five years.

The difference comes from limitations put on the working group’s broad suggestions as part of the lawmaking process.

The bills approved by the Legislature require that offenders complete at least two years of their probation or parole before they become eligible for the good behavior credits. And lawmakers say only people convicted of certain non-violent offenses would be allowed in the program.

The working group did not call for a two-year minimum limit and said that credits policy should apply to all probationers and parolees, with approval from a judge or the state’s Parole Board.

In addition, the bills passed this week would require the state to pay counties more money for holding prisoners for parole and probation violations.

The state currently reimburses counties $19.58 per day for holding inmates; these plans would increase that figure to $30 per day for inmates jailed under the bills’ provisions. The working group did not factor an increased per diem rate into its calculations.

Goodman and House sponsor Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, have said allowing violators to be jailed for short periods rather than imprisoned is vital to bringing down state costs.

That would provide quicker punishments for violations rather having the person wait several months for trial. The prospect of “swift and certain” punishment, they say, could drive down violation and recidivism rates.

But the increased reimbursement rate would end up costing the state about $4 million by 2017, nearly canceling out the $5 million in gross savings that are projected from the good behavior credits and shorter jail sentences.

In interviews this past week, Goodman and Fuhr acknowledged the savings were more modest than planned. But both said that there are factors that can’t be calculated in a legislative estimate.

In keeping with another workgroup suggestion, the bills would set up an oversight committee that may suggest expanding the programs in the future. Those expansions could one day allow for the closings of entire state prison wings or buildings, adding to the savings.

“The ultimate goal is more safety and less crime,” Goodman said. “What we can’t anticipate in a fiscal note is the crimes, the violations that aren’t committed.”

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