JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri House committee Wednesday examined possible changes to the state's probation and parole system that could save the state millions of dollars and reduce the prison population by hundreds of inmates.
A special state task force recommended the changes, and the House committee has been meeting to study the criminal justice system before lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.
The recommendations could save $7.7 million to $16.6 million over five years while reducing the prison population by 245 to 677 inmates. Missouri was incarcerating 30,777 people at the end of November, and the Legislature this year included more than $600 million in the total budget for the Department of Corrections. Some of the money that is saved could be plugged back into the criminal justice system
The possible changes came from the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections, which included officials from the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The working group said in its report that the recommendations are intended to improve public safety, hold offenders accountable and control costs.
State Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price, who served on the working group and presented its recommendations to the House committee Wednesday, said Missouri's current approach is expensive and ineffective. He said some, but not all, inmates belong in prison.
"We are trying to achieve better results for the safety of the Missouri people at a lower expense," Price said. "It's not a question about being soft on crime or hard on crime. It's a question of being smart on crime to get the best results for our people at the lowest expense."
Price was named to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1992 by then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican. During his turn as chief justice over the past two years, Price highlighted the criminal justice system in speeches to a joint Legislature.
The sentencing and corrections working group made six policy recommendations:
- Allow people who are on probation or parole to have their supervision period reduced by 30 days for every 30 days that they comply with their requirements.
- Permit probation and parole officers to levy brief jail stays for violations — limited to no more than 48 hours the first time and capped at a total of 15 days. The state would reimburse counties $30 per day for holding people in their jails.
- Create an option for 120-day "shock" incarceration when probation is revoked. It would be limited to people convicted of nonviolent crimes, who commit technical violations that do not involve a new arrest or conviction. It would not be used when probation is revoked for absconding, violating stay-away orders or weapons violations.
- Establish a new oversight committee that includes officials from throughout state government.
- Approve legislation emphasizing the right of restitution for crime victims.
- Revise the state's criminal code.
The working group found that most people who are sent to prison in Missouri are admitted because their probation or parole was revoked. In 2010, revocations for technical violations of probation and parole accounted for more than 7,800 admissions to Missouri prisons, which was 43 percent of the total admissions last year. On average, those prisoners spent 10 months behind bars.
"We want to have rewards for people who do well. We want to have swift and certain sanction for those that don't to reform behavior," Price said.
State officials worked with the Pew Center on the States to analyze sentencing laws, prison populations, probation programs and recidivism rates. Numerous other states have undertaken a similar effort.
Missouri's working group included lawmakers, two judges, the director of the state public defender system, the director for the state office of prosecution services, the Corrections Department director, and officials from the attorney general and governor's office.