JEFFERSON CITY — In a strongly worded speech to a joint legislative session Wednesday, the chief justice of Missouri's Supreme Court urged an overhaul of the state's system for addressing nonviolent crimes.
The effort to fight drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes has proved costly and relatively ineffective, Chief Justice William Price Jr. told legislators. In addition, it has caused a logjam in the criminal justice system.
Prosecuting nonviolent offenders "is costing us billions of dollars and not making a dent in crime," Price said.
"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders," he said.
Price also addressed the state's budget shortfall, ethics reform and an extension of the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan to reduce partisanship in the judiciary.
But most of his speech was devoted to shortcomings in addressing nonviolent crime in the state.
He noted that recidivism rates — the number of repeat offenders — have not improved despite significant funding for fighting crime.
In the address, Price issued a controversial call to release some nonviolent criminals from state prisons and put a stronger emphasis on treatment.
Additionally, he suggested that sentencing for nonviolent criminals be based on an offender's risk level.
Democrats applauded his suggestion to save money by reducing inmate numbers, but Republicans were generally opposed.
"Even though we are in tough budget times, letting prisoners out should not be an alternative," said House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County.
Pratt said the state could benefit from better rehabilitation programs but said letting convicts out of prison would be a mistake.
Price's address also made harsh references to corruption in Missouri politics. He urged legislators to ignore pressures from special interests and contributors and focus on making Missouri better.
To that end, he said a change in the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan will lessen the influence of partisan politics on judicial decisions. Under the new rule, the names of those interviewed for appointment to the judiciary will now be released.
"Justice is a sacred but fragile concept," the Supreme Court justice said. "It depends upon the eye of the beholder, the trust and confidence of our people.
"It cannot be for sale to the richest bidder, the most powerful special interest group or to the cleverest consultant."