ST. LOUIS -- Over the last six years, Missouri has evolved into a national model for helping released prisoners re-enter society and not reoffend.
Overcrowding led the state to accept a national group's offer in 2002 to be a pilot for reducing recidivism.
Today, in part because of the program's success, Missouri has 700 fewer inmates than its peak population of 30,700 in October 2005, corrections officials said.
But in the case of nonviolent offenders, the wiser sentence may not be prison at all, but rather probation, restitution, treatment or other alternatives, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said.
Wolff addressed a conference here Wednesday on prisoner re-entry for 300 Missouri Department of Corrections managers and administrators. As chair of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, he led a team that crafted the state's approach to sentencing that took effect in 2005.
Wolff, citing Missouri corrections statistics, said offenders convicted of nonviolent felony stealing were far less likely to reoffend when they were sentenced to probation or community service than prison.
"So does prison cause recidivism?" Wolff asked. "The data look ominous. Prison is 'criminogenic.' It encourages or teaches offenders to do further crimes.
"If we put nonviolent offenders in prison with violent offenders, the nonviolent do seem to learn from the violent. And the other way around? Not so much."
Wolff said sentencing should be no more harsh than warranted, and that community-based sanctions should be preferred over incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
Currently, the population in Missouri's prisons is evenly divided between violent and nonviolent offenders. The state of Virginia, by contrast, has reserved prisons almost exclusively for violent offenders, Wolff said.
In Missouri, starting in 2005, sentencing reports prepared by probation officers help judges analyze whether an offender is appropriate for alternative sentencing.
And an application on the Supreme Court's web site allows judges to get suggested sentences via computer based on an offender's age, education, job readiness, criminal history, drug status and other factors.
Wolff said "the data allow you to check your own instincts."
Missouri, and much of the country, went on a prison-building binge in the 1990s due to a tough-on-crime sentiment and an economy that enabled states to afford the construction.
But after 2001, money was tight. Inmates at Algoa and St. Joseph prisons were sleeping on the floor, and Missouri couldn't even afford to open its new prison at Bonne Terre.
Gary Kempker, Missouri's prison director at the time, said budget concerns prompted Missouri to consider how it could help inmates not to reoffend and return to prison.
He said when the National Institute of Corrections approached him in 2002 about using Missouri as a pilot for reducing recidivism, "I said, 'sign me up.' I had no choice."
Director Larry Crawford was recognized Wednesday at the conference for supporting the prisoner re-entry program.
"It makes so much sense if you're concerned about public safety," Crawford said. "The vast majority (of offenders) go home. If they're your neighbor, how do you want them to be?"
On the Net:
Missouri Department of Corrections: http://doc.mo.gov/