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WHAT OTHERS SAY: General Assembly takes small but important step toward prison reform

Monday, May 7, 2012 | 10:37 a.m. CDT

To borrow a phrase from Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr., the ball of judicial reform now is rolling.

In what might be their only significant accomplishment of the year, Missouri legislators have passed House Bill 1525, sponsored by Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, and sent it to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon. The bill would reduce prison populations slightly by streamlining probation and parole operations throughout the state, giving more control to county officials and reducing the number of parole violators sent to prison.

It would start the ball rolling on saving millions of dollars from our bloated corrections budget, though it will take awhile. At first, the ball will roll very slowly; the proposal will save less than $200,000 next year. But it creates an oversight commission that will monitor the prison system and produce yearly reports identifying other savings opportunities.

It is, as we noted before the session, a start. But, as Judge Price, the most important voice pushing for the reforms for the past several years, also has noted, it doesn't go far enough. Not even close.

The bill should have created a complete rewrite of Missouri's bloated and confusing criminal code. A separate bill to do that is moving forward. But real prison reform will begin only if it passes and the rewrite gets done.

The bill should have reduced Missouri's sentencing disparity between those convicted of selling crack cocaine and those selling powder cocaine. Missouri's disparity is the worst in the country. It unfairly punishes crack cocaine users, who mostly are young black men.

A proposal to fix that injustice put forward by Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, is moving forward in an omnibus judiciary bill. Unfortunately, such bills are trouble. The judiciary bill contains 30 separate and mostly unrelated proposals. Such bills never should be passed in the final, desperate days of a legislative session.

Ms. Jones' proposal should stand on its own.

That, however, is nitpicking.

In a legislature as partisan and broken as Missouri's, it's a testament to the commitment of Judge Price, Mr. Nixon, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, that the judicial reform bill is poised to become law.

Together, those leaders worked to get the Pew Center on the States to come to Missouri and, as it has in many other states, figure out how to slow down the uncontrolled growth of the corrections budget. That growth sucks money away from education and other needs even as it fails to do an adequate job of actually rehabilitating prisoners or reducing recidivism. Pew has a remarkable record of getting such reforms through state legislatures. In most other states, however, the proposals are much more significant, reducing enough prison population to actually close at least one prison and thus produce meaningful savings.

When Mr. Nixon signs the bill, and there should be no doubt he will, he should take the moment to challenge lawmakers to come back to this issue next year. He should challenge the new sentencing commission to find ways to produce even more savings.

He should stand up to prosecutors like St. Louis County's Bob McCulloch, who regrettably points to Kentucky's reduction of 1,000 nonviolent prisoners as a bad thing.

Prison reform is passing all over the country because the old "throw away the key" model is unsustainable and isn't working.

Smart on crime beats tough on crime every single day.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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