Missouri looks to relax sentencing laws

Monday, May 5, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Meet Tony Meyer, a 30-year-old white man serving a 10-year prison sentence for making and selling drugs.

Growing up in rural west-central Missouri, Meyer started smoking marijuana at age 14. He dropped out of school two years later while still in eighth grade. And he began using cocaine and speed when he started driving to weekend parties in Sedalia, the biggest city around.

By age 18, Meyer was in prison for assault, although he insists he was simply breaking up a fight involving a friend. Since then, he has been in and out of the slammer several times, usually for drug offenses.

In many regards, Meyer is a fairly typical Missouri prisoner. His age, gender, race, crimes and repeat sentences are all fairly average, according to statistics kept by the Department of Corrections.

Meyer also is part of the reason that Missouri's prison population has doubled since 1991 to about 30,200 inmates -- about the number of residents of Missouri's 20th-largest city.

As it is, Missouri's prisoners are dispersed among about 20 institutions, many of which have been built in the past decade to accommodate the rising tide of new inmates.

Budget troublesNow lawmakers, many of whom had advocated longer sentences as part of a tough-on-crime approach, are looking for ways to slow the prison growth.

One strong motivation is the state's budget troubles, and the fact that it costs roughly $13,000 a year to supply housing, food and oversight for each inmate.

But equally motivating for some lawmakers is a growing belief that prison time -- especially for drug users -- is not a very effective correction tool

Among the converts is state Sen. Harold Caskey, a former Bates County prosecutor who has sponsored many of the state's recent criminal bills. As a former chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, he also undertook an exhaustive study of the state's sentencing laws.

"We have found, like many other states, that mandatory sentences do not correct recidivism," said Caskey, D-Butler. "But it does add to the prison population."

Caskey is sponsoring legislation that encourages judges to refer first-time, nonviolent offenders to 120-day "shock sentences" or drug treatment programs, then release them on probation or parole.

The bill also allows other nonviolent offenders to petition for release after 120 days in prison. And it reduces the maximum sentence for the lowest category of felonies -- things like drug possession, bad checks and some burglaries -- from five years to four years.

If signed into law, the bill is projected to reduce the prison population by at least 1,542 inmates a year, saving the state more than $21 million. The bill has passed the Senate and awaits House debate before the legislative session ends May 16.

But St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, said he and many colleagues are concerned that budget-cutters could take dangerous risks.

McCulloch said prosecutors are open to treatment as an option for nonviolent drug offenders, but he adds that such programs work only if well-funded.

Mixed resultsMeyer, who is incarcerated for drug possession, manufacture and distribution convictions, participated in a drug treatment program at the Ozark Correctional Center as part of a previous sentence.

But he wound up involved drugs again when released. Now he is voluntarily taking prison courses on substance abuse and anger management -- with mixed results.

In December, he managed to obtain marijuana behind bars and tested positive for drugs during a random check. The violation earned him isolation time in prison.

But during a March interview, Meyer vowed he was ready to change -- this time, for good.

"I know I'm eventually going to be out, and I'm going to have the same people come around. It's just up to me to leave the drugs and dope alone," Meyer said. "Every time I've gotten out, I think I could do just a little bit (of drugs), but it led me back here."

Algoa superintendent Michael Murphy, whose institution is being converted from medium to minimum security, describes Meyer as "a typical kind of person for this institution."

Some inmates have an epiphany in the prison's drug courses; many others do not, he said.

For Meyer, the Missouri legislation would come too late. He's long past being a first-time offender. And his convictions for assaulting a law officer and manufacturing methamphetamine likely would preclude him from the bill's provisions.

But Meyer said he has a developed a good perspective on the effectiveness of prison sentences for drug abusers. From his confines at the Algoa prison, he can look over the Missouri River valley and see a new, maximum-security prison rising in a field. It's scheduled to completed next year.

"They opened up all these new prisons, but to me, I don't see them doing anything to help anyone," Meyer said.

He knows, finally, what could help.

"I'd like to get into some more treatment before I get back out," he says.

Sentencing bill is SB5.

A TYPICAL PRISONER

Missouri now has more than 30,000 prisoners. Here's a look at the demographics of state prisoners:

Gender: Predominantly male.

Race: 55 percent white; 42 percent black.

Average age: 33.

Most prevalent crime type: Distribution, delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance.

Average sentence length for the most prevalent crime: 8.2 years.

Average sentence overall: 10.8 years.

Average time served in prison: 48 percent of sentence; 62 percent for violent offenders and 42 percent for nonviolent offenders.

SOURCE: Missouri Department of Corrections

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