Missouri program leads nation in cutting inmate population

Monday, July 30, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:55 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

FARMINGTON — Missouri is leading the nation in reducing its inmate population, thanks to changes in recent years designed to get offenders back on their feet, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.

In the year that ended June 30, 2006, the number of people behind bars in Missouri declined by nearly 3 percent, the largest percentage in any state. Only eight states reported a decline, according to the Department of Justice.

When Republican Gov. Matt Blunt took office in January 2005, Missouri’s prison population was growing by about two people a day, said Commissioner of Administration Mike Keathley. At that rate, the state would have had to build a new prison every two years.

Instead, Missouri has new supervision centers to house offenders who may have slipped up with probation or parole violations, a re-entry program to help inmates return to society and even tools like a computer program that helps judges determine sentences.

Missouri officials point to the centers as a key factor in the state’s inmate decline.

Two community supervision centers are already open in Farmington and St. Joseph. The state plans to open five more, in Hannibal, Kennett, Poplar Bluff, Kansas City and Fulton. They house offenders on probation or parole, usually those who violated the terms that led to their freedom, and keep them from returning to prison.

At the centers, nonviolent offenders can get drug treatment, attend employment workshops or earn a high school diploma by passing a GED test.

Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton, stresses the taxpayer benefit of the supervision centers. She heads the House committee that oversees the $624 million operating budget of the Corrections Department.

The system now holds 29,901 inmates. Each prisoner costs the state $39.43 a day or $14,392 a year.

Larry Crawford, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said the state also provides a special “re-entry” program for inmates leaving prison.

They live in transitional housing units, learn how to write a resume and get a state-issued nondriver’s identification card.

The state also revamped how criminals are sentenced.

Today, new reports prepared for judges analyze whether a community-oriented program is likely to keep an offender from committing more crimes. Sentencing recommendations emphasize alternatives to prison for nonviolent felonies.

Since probation officers began issuing the new sentencing reports in November 2005, Missouri’s prison population has dropped by nearly 700 inmates. By contrast, the number of inmates grew by 850 in the preceding fiscal year.

David Valentine, a senior analyst at the Truman School of Public Affairs at MU, called the turnaround “dramatic.”

“Missouri is on the beginning edge of what should be a long-term, downward trend,” said Valentine.

The state’s approach has been crafted during the past two years by a team led by Supreme Court Judge Mike Wolff. He heads the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission.

The commission also developed a simple-to-use application on its Web site — — that allows judges to get suggested sentences from their computers. The program recommends probation, prison time or an alternative sentence based on information such as the offender’s age, work history and education, as well as his or her criminal history.

Prosecutors say they see the logic in reserving prison space for the most violent criminals. But they say the new sentencing recommendations are based on average sentences for a particular offense and fail to take into account how crimes differ.

Under the new system, felons are assigned a “risk class” ranging from “good” to “poor.” The sentencing reports no longer include a detailed narrative about the offender’s family background, education and crime.

“The new version is more of a cookie-cutter justice, as opposed to a thorough background investigation,” said Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle.

Prosecutors also said the previous increase in the state’s inmate population was related to the passage in 1994 of legislation dubbed “truth in sentencing.”

Under the law, people convicted of any of seven major crimes — second-degree murder, rape, sodomy, kidnapping, first-degree assault, arson and first-degree robbery — must serve 85 percent of their prison sentence. Before the law, inmates were often paroled after serving much less of their sentence.

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