JEFFERSON CITY — Top officials from Missouri's legislative, executive and judicial branches joined forces Wednesday in an effort to revamp Missouri's criminal sentencing practices with an eye toward diverting more nonviolent offenders to treatment programs instead of prison.
Missouri officials are working with the Pew Center on the States to analyze current sentencing laws, prison populations, probation programs and recidivism rates. Other states that have undertaken similar studies have enacted laws directing more nonviolent offenders to enhanced probation and drug treatment programs, generally reserving prison beds for the most serious and violent offenses.
At a news conference Wednesday, Missouri officials said their dual goal is to increase public safety by rehabilitating more offenders while saving the state money by locking up only those whose crimes most warrant such punishment.
"All too often legislators legislate to the press release of the day — the biggest crime that comes about in the media usually brings about a swifter, tougher penalty for whatever that conduct may be, and we have a piecemeal criminal code," said Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, who is co-chairman of the group undertaking the study. "What we are doing today, and through the coming months, is working toward a holistic, data-driven, evidenced based approach."
The effort drew support at a Capitol news conference Wednesday from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr., state Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and state House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville. They said their goal is for the group to produce recommendations for legislation that can be passed during the 2012 session.
Koster, a former county prosecutor, said the bipartisan nature of the project shows policymakers "are actively searching out the correct answers" to questions of public safety and criminal recidivism rates. He said the effort hopefully will lead to a consensus proposal on incarceration, education, monitoring, training and post-prison job placement programs for people who have committed crimes.
The Associated Press first reported in July that Missouri officials had begun working with the Pew Center in an effort to revamp the state's criminal sentencing practices. One of the leading drivers behind the effort has been Price, whose two-year turn as chief justice ended June 30. Price has been a longtime advocate of specialized drug treatment courts.
"Modern research shows that for many nonviolent offenders, prison — the most expensive response — is not always the best response," Price said Wednesday. "Many nonviolent and low-risk offenders can be treated more effectively at a lower cost with other evidence-based strategies."
This marks Missouri's second effort in the past decade to pare back some prison terms in favor of alternative treatments.
A 2003 Missouri law reduced the maximum sentence for the lowest level of felonies — including repeated drunken driving, passing bad checks and some drug-related charges — to four years in prison instead of five. It also allowed people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies to seek release from prison after 120 days, with the remainder of their sentences served on probation, parole or some other court-approved program. The 2003 law also allowed judges to decide whether to order some drug offenders to treatment programs instead of sending them to prison.
At the time, Missouri was nearing the end of a 10-year building boom during which it opened nine new prisons. The inmate count stood at about 30,200, and the Department of Corrections budget was $575 million. The prisoner population has grown only slightly since then, and the department is budgeted to get nearly $660 million this fiscal year.