Bill would abolish Sentencing Advisory Commission

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 | 9:05 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Judge Gary Oxenhandler debated a bill Wednesday that would abolish the Sentencing Advisory Commission.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, would abolish the commission that has been working since 1993 to advise the state's justices of suitable alternatives to incarceration, with a goal of alleviating Missouri's prison population.

Several states, including Illinois, have implemented advisory commissions to gather information on how sentences are handed out and give advice on appropriate criminal penalties. 

But Missouri's commission is the only one to include the estimated cost when giving its various imprisonment alternatives. 

Bill supporters argued against including the estimated costs, as well as what Platte County prosecuting attorney and Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys secretary Eric Zahnd called the commission's "outrageously lenient" sentencing recommendations.

"It appears (the commission) has made sentencing recommendations with virtually no scientific foundation and with one and only one apparent goal in mind, and that is to decrease the prison population without regard to public safety," Zahnd said.

"(The commission) compounds the problems by misinterpreting recidivism and prison cost statistics in a way that suggests its sentences reduce crime and save money when just the opposite is likely true," he said.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys proposed an alternative to the commission — a "rigorous," comprehensive scientific evaluation on the effects various sentencing practices have on reducing the costs of the prison system, as well as their effect on increasing public safety.

"The data provided by (the commission) is extremely misleading," Zahnd said. "It is not generated in a way that yields scientifically supportable conclusions. Instead, (the commission) provides conclusions that likely mislead judges in one direction, to grant probation or short prison sentences. The result is that Missourians are less safe because of (the commission's) mischaracterizations."

Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Gary Oxenhandler disputed the allegations.

"Missouri, along with almost every state in the United States, is facing an incarceration crisis. ... We simply don't have the money for it," Oxenhandler said. "The United States leads the world in prisoners. And for the past 30 years, starting with our war on drugs, we have continued to put more and more people in prison."

"We need to be pickier about who we send to prison, ... to recognize the differences between those that we are simply mad at and those of whom we are afraid," Oxenhandler said.

Missouri's Sentencing Advisory Commission uses a system of risk analysis to provide appropriate sentencing alternatives to incarceration. The system weighs past criminal history, severity of crime and a number of other factors to determine risk.

Its guidelines for analysis are not comprehensive. Instead, they are divided into categories that are meant to better apply to varying criminal actions.

"When you look at a sentencing assessment report, I like to think we know more about a defendant than their second-grade buddy," Oxenhandler said. "It's just one out of many things we look at."

According to Oxenhandler, 85 percent of Missouri's judges support the commission.

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