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May 3, 2012

Significant sentencing reform passes (nearly unanimously) in yet another red state

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri Legislature passes sentencing, parole guidelines," yet another so-called red state has now enacted a significant piece of sentencing reform legislation. Here are the basics:

During three decades as a St. Louis police officer and FBI agent, Gary Fuhr worked to lock up lawbreakers. As he puts it: "I spent my entire career trying to make sure all our correctional facilities operated at maximum capacity."

But after becoming a member of the state House last year, Fuhr participated in an eye-opening study of who is in state prisons and why. Now, the south St. Louis County Republican is the chief sponsor of a bill designed to keep some nonviolent offenders out of prison by beefing up community supervision alternatives. "It keeps our beds available for the folks who truly need to be locked up," Fuhr said.

The Legislature passed the bill on Wednesday and sent it to Gov. Jay Nixon, who is expected to sign it. The bill is projected to save the state an estimated $168,657 next year and potentially more in future years. The House passed the bill on a vote of 151-0. The Senate approved it 24-3.

While the bill is not as far-reaching as prison-closing measures passed in some states, its overwhelming, bipartisan approval stands out in a legislative session marked by gridlock and election-year politics. It garnered support from prosecutors as well as public defenders, staunch law-and-order legislators as well as social welfare advocates, domestic violence workers as well as civil libertarians....

At the heart of the plan is more intensive community supervision. For example, probation officers could mete out immediate, 48-hour jail stays when an offender violates a rule of supervision, such as failing a drug test. Backers say swift punishment would get the message across better than the current system, in which minor violations pile up, get mired in court backlogs and then result in an offender being shipped to the penitentiary.

The bill had its beginnings in a "State of the Judiciary" speech given in 2010 by Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price. He told legislators that incarcerating nonviolent offenders — without treating their underlying drug and alcohol problems — was costing billions and wasn't making a dent in crime.

Missouri spends more than $660 million a year to keep 31,130 people behind bars and 73,280 offenders on probation and parole. More than 11,000 employees, or one out of every five people on the state government payroll, work for the Department of Corrections.

Last year, Nixon, a Democrat, and the Legislature's top Republican leaders teamed with court officials to set up a working group to analyze prison data and make recommendations. Crunching the data was the Pew Center on the States and staff from its Public Safety Performance Project, which has done similar work in about 20 states. "The idea is, we can get more public safety at less cost," said Brian Elderbroom, a project manager at the Pew Center.

The most striking finding in Missouri's study: 71 percent of prison admissions resulted from probation or parole violations. And about 43 percent of the incoming prisoners had committed "technical" violations, such as failing to report a move or missing an appointment with a probation officer.

The bill aims to keep those offenders on track while they're on probation so they don't wind up in prison. The state would award points for following the rules, shortening an offender's supervision period by 30 days for every 30 days of compliance. "It motivates them to do the right thing," Fuhr said....

The new system would apply only to people convicted of certain drug offenses and lower-level C and D felonies, such as stealing, bad checks and forgeries. Prosecutors insisted that felonies such as aggravated stalking and sexual assault be excluded. "We're very happy with the bill as it is now," said McCulloch, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Some states, such as Kentucky, went too far, McCulloch said, by requiring that the state's prison population be reduced by several thousand people. "The easiest thing is to empty prisons," the prosecutor said. "You just start paroling people. But that hurts public safety. We wanted to make sure we stayed away from that."

May 3, 2012 at 10:21 PM | Permalink


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Doug, thanks for the steady stream of articles about different states who have changed their policies of locking up nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time. Each time you print one, I send it to a judge who is considering an Eighth Amendment as applied claim against a long sentence under NC's habitual felon statute for possession of residue cocaine.

I've been using the articles to address the third step, or the interjurisdictional analysis step, of the now widely adopted method of analyzing cruel and unusual punishment challenges, derived from Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion in Harmelin v Michigan.

I've tried the interstate comparison on habitual felon sentences but the variety of three strike laws is too broad to make a meaningful comparison. Therefore, I am using general policy changes to support the contention that states are moving away from mass incarceration of drug addicts committing nonviolent offenses.

Thanks. I'll let you know if the Judge vacates the sentence as excessive and if the Order looks good, I'll send it to you to post.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | May 3, 2012 11:43:57 PM

bruce --

I love your creativity, if not your chances.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 4, 2012 3:19:40 AM

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