JEFFERSON CITY — Looking to slow the growth of Missouri’s inmate population, state lawmakers relaxed sentencing laws a year and a half ago to allow some nonviolent offenders to seek release after just three months in prison.
When the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the law to apply to people already in prison — not just those sentenced after the law took effect — state Attorney General Jay Nixon warned that thousands of inmates could be turned loose, making communities less safe.
So far, 13 inmates have been granted early release.
That’s not exactly the tidal wave Nixon projected. Nor necessarily is it the result envisioned by the law’s supporters, who figured the program would save the state bundles of money by freeing up prison beds.
Yet Nixon is continuing to stress that thousands of inmates could get released early. He is supporting a legislative effort to supplement — or counteract — the early release recommendations with statements from their crime victims.
State law gives crime victims the right to participate in traditional parole hearings.
“Unfortunately, they will not have those same rights in the early release hearings unless we close this loophole,” Nixon said last week while urging the change to be made in the legislative session that starts Jan. 5. At least two Democratic House members have filed such bills.
The law, which took effect June 27, 2003, applies to first-time prisoners convicted of nonviolent Class C and Class D felonies, which include most drug-possession offenses, burglary, child molestation, forgery and third-offense drunken driving.
Of Missouri’s 30,645 prisoners, about 5,800 are eligible for the early release program, according to the Corrections Department. Of that pool, 707 inmates have sought early release, and 13 have been approved by a judge, Corrections Department spokesman John Fougere said.
“That is a small number,” Fougere said, emphasizing: “Just because this law changed doesn’t mean that number of people is going to get out of prison. It just means they’re eligible to petition the court to get out.”