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UPDATE: Missouri House backs measure to overhaul prison system

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 | 5:04 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Some Missouri criminals placed on probation and parole could see shorter sentences and less jail time for minor violations under legislation endorsed Tuesday that could save money for the state's tight budget.

The legislation given first-round approval by the state House of Representatives would give non-violent parolees or probationers an additional 30 days of credit toward their sentence for every month they go without a violation. The bill also would allow for 120-day "shock" jail sentences — instead of a longer return to prison — for some felons who violate probation or parole for the first time.

The proposed changes stem from a report put out last summer by a state work group charged with finding ways to reduce corrections spending, which now totals about $660 million annually. Sponsoring Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, said the legislation aims to slow that spending as the state's budget tightens.

The House bill needs a second vote to move to the Senate, which already has given initial approval to its own version of the legislation.

The state working group found 71 percent of admissions to the state's prisons in 2010 were people charged with violating probation or parole. It also found the average probation term is four-and-half years. That is about 40 percent longer than the national average of three years and two months, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Among the panel's recommendations were the proposals to shorten probation and parole terms and the shorter sentences for violations.

Fuhr, a member of the working group, said shortening probation periods and sending violators to jail rather than prison would allow the state to concentrate corrections spending on violent criminals and repeat offenders.

"This is the right thing to do for the state of Missouri," Fuhr, a former special agent with the FBI and former St. Louis police officer. "This legislation will improve public safety and use our taxpayer dollars more wisely."

The bill is projected to save the state nearly $1 million by the end of 2017.

While most of the House debate Tuesday was in support of the legislation, some senators took issue during that chamber's debate with the rate at which the state reimburses counties for holding inmates in their jails. The state currently reimburses counties at a rate of about $19.58 per day.

Both the House and Senate measures would increase that rate to $30 per day, but some senators said that higher rate still would not be enough.

In St. Charles County, for example, jail director Larry Crawford said Monday that the daily cost of holding each inmate in his jail is about $85 per day. He said most of that is driven by inmate medical expenses, staff salaries and higher food costs.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said increasing the number of inmates would further strain cash-strapped local governments.

"We don't like it when the federal government pushes the cost down to us, and we should treat our counties with the same respect," he said. "They are burdened just as we are."


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