Crawford's tenure coincided with execution tumult

Thursday, January 8, 2009 | 4:03 p.m. CST; updated 4:55 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 8, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Missouri Corrections Director Larry Crawford and observers say he is leaving the department in better condition than it was. Yet debate over lethal injection, a surprise executioner and ultimately a moratorium on executions shaped part of his tenure.

Crawford, a California, Mo., native, had run a small business and served eight years as state representative when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt picked him in January 2005 to lead the state corrections system, replacing Gary Kempker.

He set out to modernize such things as officers' weapons — automatic handguns instead of the outdated .38 Special revolver — and offender databases, making searches easier for the public and law enforcement.

He curtailed what he describes as the institution's "good old boy network," making it clear that front-line correctional officers were valued as much as higher-paid administrators, building teamwork and reducing turnover, and showing up in the prisons unannounced at odd hours to talk to officers about their challenging work.

"That's how he got his opinions. He knew they were the backbone of the institution," said Gary Gross, executive director of the Missouri Correctional Officers Association.

"He's probably the most popular director, among staff, that's ever been in corrections," he said. "The general atmosphere improved considerably."

Crawford moved to promote almost entirely from within and got leadership training for staff from the National Institute of Corrections.

"We were so short of bed space and building new prisons, people were being promoted and thrown into jobs without training," Crawford said. "I thought, here's the time when we need to grow our leaders with others going into retirement."

He is perhaps proudest of Missouri's distinction as the only state in the nation whose prison population did not rise in the past three consecutive years.

Crawford embraced and supported what has become a national model for helping released prisoners re-enter society and not re-offend. NIC director Morris Thigpen said Crawford's legislative background helped him enlist state and local government in helping offenders re-enter society.

"I'm fully committed to helping those that can have a lawful, successful life, and on the other side, fighting ones that don't want to go that way," Crawford said.

"I struggle with that," he said, wanting to lift the "downtrodden," but recognizing some offenders pose a threat to staff and other inmates.

"I've talked to spouses, siblings and other family members who have problems with their loved ones being in (prison)," he said.

Missouri's prison population has begun rising again with the slumping economy, and whether it can be brought back down depends partly on jobs.

"I've learned and relearned that if you don't have an income that will sustain you, odds are you'll commit another crime," Crawford said.

Fresh on the job in the spring of 2005, Crawford oversaw the first of what would be Missouri's only four executions that year, and since, at the prison in Bonne Terre.

By the following February, in 2006, the state was stopped from executing convicted Kansas City murderer Michael Taylor in a case that prompted debate on the constitutionality of lethal injection, led to a temporary moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri, and gave rise to concerns that a dyslexic surgeon had had too much autonomy in overseeing executions.

The department scrambled to comply with an initial, but later withdrawn, federal court order to have an anesthesiologist oversee executions, and it reformed and codified its execution procedures.

Crawford called executions the most sobering part of his job, "the one I take with great gravity and seriousness."

He said Missouri's execution procedures are humane and constitutional, and staff are ready and trained for resumption of the death penalty. He said state corrections staff are divided, like the rest of society, on the merits of the death penalty.

Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty are among those who say the execution procedures should have been subject to public comment and legislative oversight.

Executive Director Colleen Cunningham said the group also opposes the law, drafted in Crawford's tenure, that protects the confidentiality of the execution team.

"We felt it important for the public to know who is involved with executions," she said. "The department had a different position."

Former Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton, who chaired committees that oversaw the prisons and their budget, called Crawford a "straight shooter" who managed his department well in tough economic times.

"He's a statesman," she said. "Any time he gave testimony about his department, he did so with class and honor."

Crawford had hoped to stay in state government, saying he found a calling in public service. He plans to stay until Gov.-elect Jay Nixon's appointment, George Lombardi, is confirmed by the Senate.


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