Corrections overhaul awaits Nixon signature

Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a measure that would shorten the sentences of some criminals who are placed on probation or parole.

Under the measures, some nonviolent offenders on parole or probation could receive 30 days of credit toward their sentence for every month they go without a violation.

The bills would also allow for 120-day “shock” jail sentences for some felons who violate their probation or parole for the first time and shorter jail sentences for subsequent violations.

Rep. Gary Fuhr, who sponsored the legislation, said its changes will help the state save money and will reduce the number of people who commit crimes after they’re released.

“I think it’s going to change the paradigm in which we handle individuals who are on probation and parole,” said Fuhr, R-St. Louis County. “It’s going to allow us to focus our resources on those people with more serious violations.”

The House passed the legislation in a 150-0 vote Wednesday. The Senate gave the bill final approval in 24-3 vote a few hours later, sending it to Gov. Jay Nixon.

“The concepts in the bill are ones the Governor’s office has been working on closely with legislative, judicial and public safety leaders to increase both public safety and efficiencies in our state’s justice system,” Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in an email.

He said Nixon is still reviewing the legislation.

House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said the overhaul measure is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that lawmakers have worked on the past 20 years.

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

In a December report, the working group unveiled several policy suggestions that became part of Fuhr’s legislation.

The working group found 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 in Missouri is 41⁄2 years, which is about 40 percent longer than the national average of three years and two months, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The group said shortening those sentences and changing the consequences for violations could have saved the state between $7.7 million and $16 million by 2017.

But financial estimates included with the legislation passed Wednesday say the state will more likely see a net savings of less than $1 million over the next five years.

That’s in part because the bill approved by the Legislature limits the good behavior credits to only certain nonviolent offenders and requires that offenders complete at least two years of their probation or parole before they become eligible for the program.

The measure also requires the state to pay counties more money for holding prisoners for the shorter sentences for parole and probation violations.

The state currently reimburses counties $19.58 per day for holding inmates. That figure would increase to at least $30 per day for inmates jailed under the bill’s provisions.

After approving the probation and parole measure, lawmakers also moved forward with creating a new committee to study additional changes to the state’s criminal laws. The six-member joint committee will review the criminal code and recommendations from the Missouri Bar. A committee of prosecutors, defense attorneys and representatives from the Legislature and courts has been evaluating the state criminal code for four years.

The joint legislative committee was given a Nov. 15 deadline to report its findings.

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