Holden signs bill relaxing sentencing laws for some offenders

Saturday, June 28, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Seeking to slow the swell of Missouri's prison population, Gov. Bob Holden signed relaxed sentencing laws Friday aimed primarily at nonviolent, first-time criminals.

The sentencing law changes are projected to result in 1,400 fewer people entering prison annually -- enough to counter, or at least slow, an inmate influx that has doubled the state prison population over the past dozen years.

Missouri has more than 30,200 inmates dispersed among about 20 institutions. The state anticipates spending about $575 million this coming fiscal year on the Department of Corrections, which also oversees people on probation and parole.

The new laws, which take effect immediately, encourage shorter prison terms and probation for some nonviolent offenders and stress community treatment programs for some drug offenders.

As a result, legislative researchers project the laws will save the state $9 million in the fiscal year that starts Tuesday, more than $19 million next year and a total of $204 million over the next 10 years.

"This measure represents a step toward a more sensible, cost efficient and effective Missouri criminal justice system," Holden said while signing the bill in his Capitol office.

The new law lowers the maximum prison sentence to four years from the current five years for the lowest category of felonies -- things like drug possession, bad checks and some burglaries.

People convicted of certain nonviolent felonies could seek release after 120 days in prison and serve the balance of their sentences on probation, parole or other court-approved program.

Judges could decide whether to sentence drug offenders to the penalty prescribed by law, or to order them into a treatment program. If sent to a private program, offenders may have to pay the tab.

"There are no radical changes in this legislation, although there are significant changes," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Harold Caskey, a former Bates County prosecutor who during his 27-year Senate career has handled many of Missouri's criminal laws.

The legislation also enhances punishments for five offenses by requiring criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences for first-degree domestic assault, first-degree elderly abuse, first-degree assault of a law officer and first-degree statutory rape or sodomy when a child is less than 12 years old.

Similar 85 percent sentence requirements already exist for other "dangerous felonies," such as second-degree murder, kidnapping, and the highest categories of rape, assault and arson.

Several years ago, as chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Caskey, D-Butler, undertook an exhaustive study of the state's sentencing laws. He concluded that mandatory sentences had swelled the prison population but done little to deter repeat offenders. He said alternative sentences often are more effective than prison for drug users and some other nonviolent prisoners.

Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff also has advocated for greater use of alternative sentences for nonviolent and drug offenders. Wolff said the success of the new law will depend partly on whether communities create treatment and service programs to which offenders could be sentenced.

"It's a good start," Wolff said. "It really depends on the probation people, the judges and the people at the local level being able to put together the kind of resources to keep people in the community instead of putting them into prison."

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Sentencing bill is SB5.

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Missouri Legislature: http://www.moga.state.mo.us

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