Chief Justice William Ray Price’s State of the Judiciary address to the Missouri General Assembly on Feb. 3 is well worth reading. While it mentioned the annual judicial concerns of increased caseloads, the fact that Missouri is 39th in judge’s pay and the need for better information technology for court administration, Price focused on criminal justice problems that many policymakers would rather not think about: prison population costs and the public defender system.
Price showed a great deal of thoughtfulness — and had the luxury of the freedom that comes from not facing the voters every two or four years. Price has been on the state Supreme Court since 1992 with a term that runs until 2018.
While merely raising these issues to the legislature is important because it gives these problems more attention and keeps them on the public agenda, Price’s forthright manner and clear reasoning should be a model for all policymakers.
Price asserts “we have been tough on crime, but not smart on crime” because of the “overincarceration of nonviolent offenders and the mishandling of drug and alcohol offenses." Missouri has twice the number of nonviolent offenders in prison than it did in 1994. The number of new inmates in 1994 was 4,857; in 2009 it was 7,220. The cost per inmate is now $16,456 per year or about $45.00 per day. The total appropriation to the Department of Corrections in 1994 was $216 million. Now it is over $670 million — more than a 300 percent increase. Missouri currently houses 31,267 inmates, up from 27,607 in 2001.
Worse yet, Missouri’s recidivism rate for released inmates to return to prison within two years is 41.4 percent
Price is also concerned with inconsistencies in criminal sentencing across the state’s judicial circuits. The average sentence for the lowest sentencing circuit is 4.5 years and for the highest circuit is 9 years.
Price shares the same opinion that most citizens have about crime — i.e. violent, dangerous criminals need to be incarcerated — but he doubts the effectiveness of locking up first-time drug and alcohol addicts. Price states boldly: “We also know that simple incarceration, no matter how expensive, does not cure addiction. Treatment with strict judicial oversight does.”
Price champions drug courts, DWI courts and better sentencing as solutions, arguing we need to move from “anger-based sentencing” to “evidence-based sentencing.” Courts have access to improved risk assessment of offenders that is intended to improve the effectiveness of sentencing.
Price argues that drug courts costs less than incarceration, that more than half of participants graduate, and that recidivism for those graduates is about 10 percent. Price concludes that recent social science research finds that drug courts have reduced crime by between 8 to 26 percent.
Perhaps Price’s concerns will increase attention on bills currently before them.
Price brings similar logic to the current crisis of the overworked public defender system. He states that currently the only way public defenders can select their cases is based on the accused offender’s indigency and not seriousness of the crime. Price proposes that the most serious crimes be targeted. “This is common sense. Spend our money were it counts. But your statutes don’t read that way now,” he said.
The Missouri Bar Association has previously called for major reform to this overtaxed public defender system, concluding that it has been so underfunded that it is not complying with either the Public Defender Guidelines for Representation or the Missouri Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct. The University of Missouri Law School will further address these concerns in a Law School Symposium on Feb. 26.
Politics has steered us toward unreasonable and expensive criminal justice practices. An era of “lock them up and throw away the key” and political candidates fearing they would be painted as “being soft on crime” have pushed us in the wrong direction. Rather than increasing sentencing we should focus on reducing recidivism — the goal should be safe communities where people who violate the law learn not to do it again.
Reducing recidivism, especially in an era of tight governmental budgets, makes sense. The federal Second Chance Act of 2007 currently funds small demonstrations projects that aim to cut recidivism in half within five years.
Offender re-entry is hard under the best of conditions because of inmates’ lack of housing, transportation, job skills and social networks but has the potential of preventing additional crime; restore families, and reducing next generation crime. Groups like the Kansas City Crime Commission have independently realized that it if far better to teach inmates not to go back to jail than it is to house them at public expense and have created Second Chance programs to find better ways for communities to meet these needs.
Price’s understanding of the political system should be considered by all citizens. He states, “In my time on the Court, I have seen how hard your life is here in the legislature. I understand the pressures you bear to keep your base, the pressures from special interest groups, the pressures to raise thousands of dollars to fund your campaign, or move up in leadership.”
Perhaps Price is urging legislators to make better policy decisions in a very difficult political environment.
Research from the Pew Center on the States agrees with Price’s observations on the effectivness of alternative sentencing and the costliness of incarceration, but those researchers are not on their state supreme courts and seldom have the ear of legislators. More legislators, journalists and citizens should read Chief Justice Price’s address and see if they agree.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.