UPDATE: Missouri chief justice urges new methods to fight crime

Wednesday, February 9, 2011 | 9:12 p.m. CST; updated 10:57 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price urged lawmakers Wednesday to consider new crime-fighting strategies, using alternative sentencing to help keep offenders from committing crimes again.

Price said prison is the most costly and least effective response to many nonviolent offenders and that money spent on incarcerations could be better spent on alcohol and drug treatment and education and job training. He touted alternatives such as drug and drunken-driving courts and promoted test programs to divert juveniles from detention facilities and to deal with troubled military veterans.

"We need to move from anger-based, prison-focused sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based alternative sanctions that change troubled lives and focus on results," said Price, who was speaking to a joint legislative session.

The chief justice delivered a similar message in the annual State of the Judiciary speech he gave last year, in which he said the price of incarceration was "costing us our shirts."

Price — appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1992 by Republican Gov. John Ashcroft — said punishment is necessary but that the goal should be to get offenders to not commit crimes again.

Besides criminal justice issues, Price also offered a defense for Missouri's method of picking appeals court judges and some urban trial court judges.

People interested in becoming judges for those courts apply to special nominating panels that forward three finalists to the governor, who then appoints one. That system is used for the state Supreme Court; three regional appeals courts; and trial courts in St. Louis City and Clay, Greene, Jackson, Platte and St. Louis counties. The judges then stand for periodic retention elections.

Price said other options for choosing judges would inject politics into the system and that the current method has helped to ensure the courts are fair.

"It balances the need for legal ability, everyday common sense and responsibility to the people in a way that preserves the integrity and the fairness and the impartiality of the judge," Price said. "It also checks the power of all concerned."

Missouri adopted its system for selecting judges in 1940 to reduce the politics involved in the judiciary and lessen the influence of urban political machine bosses. But critics recently have argued that politics still are involved and that attorneys have too much influence in selecting judges.

Republican lawmakers have proposed constitutional amendments to make changes. One group made an unsuccessful attempt to get a measure on the ballot this past November that would have required partisan elections for all judges.

Earlier this week, Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, proposed a constitutional amendment that he said is designed to reduce the influence of attorneys in the selection of judges. Cox's measure would allow the governor to reject all the candidates to get a new panel and increase the number of finalists the governor could consider. It also would change the membership of the panels that weed out applicants for judgeships.

Cox said the current system is not perfect and if some changes are not made, the entire concept could be thrown out through a ballot measure.

"If it is not improved, I think it's very vulnerable to a statewide vote," said Cox.

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