Few inmates have been set free despite new early release law

Monday, December 13, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Looking to slow the growth of Missouri's inmate population, state lawmakers relaxed sentencing laws a year-and-a-half ago to allow some nonviolent offenders to seek their release after just three months in prison.

When the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the law to apply to people already in prison -- not just those sentenced after the law took effect -- state Attorney General Jay Nixon warned that thousands of inmates could be turned loose on the streets, making communities less safe.

So far, 13 inmates have been granted early release.

That's not exactly the tidal wave projected by Nixon. Nor necessarily is it the result envisioned by the law's supporters, who figured the early release program would save the state bundles of money by freeing up prison beds.

Yet Nixon is continuing to stress that thousands of inmates could get released early. And he is supporting a legislative effort to supplement -- or counteract -- the early release recommendations with statements from their crime victims.

Closing a loophole

State law gives crime victims the right to participate in traditional parole hearings.

"Unfortunately, they will not have those same rights in the early release hearings unless we close this loophole," Nixon said last week while urging the change to be made in the legislative session that starts Jan. 5. At least two Democratic House members already have filed such bills.

The early release law, which took effect June 27, 2003, applies to first-time prisoners convicted of nonviolent class C and class D felonies, which include most drug possession offenses, burglary, child molestation, forgery or third-offense drunken driving, to name a few.

People who have served at least 120 days in prison can seek release to serve the remainder of their sentences on probation, parole or some other court-approved program. The Department of Corrections makes recommendations to a judge, who makes the decision.

Of Missouri's 30,645 prisoners, about 5,800 are eligible for the early release program, according to the Corrections Department. That's the same figure cited by Nixon last March when the state Supreme Court ruled the provision applies to prisoners sentenced both before and after the law's effective date.

Of that pool, 707 inmates have sought early release, and so far just 13 have been approved by a judge, said Corrections Department spokesman John Fougere.

"That is a small number," Fougere observed, emphasizing: "Just because this law changed doesn't mean that number of people are going to get out of prison. It just means they're eligible to petition the court to get out."

Of those released early, three each had been convicted of stealing, drunken driving and manufacture or distribution of drugs. Two others had been convicted of forgery.

Nonviolent felonies

But the convictions of two inmates for second-degree assault and unlawful use of a weapon don't on face value appear very nonviolent, as the early release law requires.

State law defines second-degree assault as attempting to kill or cause serious physical injury to someone while acting under a sudden passion or with a deadly weapon; recklessly causing serious physical injury; or negligently injuring someone while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The early release law contains no specific definition of what qualifies as a "nonviolent" felony.

But a separate section of state law defines a "nonviolent offender" as anyone convicted of anything other than first- or second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, kidnapping, forcible rape or sodomy, first-degree robbery or first-degree assault.

Second-degree assault -- while perhaps sounding violent -- is not on that list. Nor is unlawful use of a weapon.

So it would seem the early release law may not be meeting expectations as far as who is released, how many people are released and how much money is being saved.

Missouri was not alone in enacting its law. In the past three years, more than half the states have eased sentencing laws, according to the State Sentencing and Corrections Project at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

What remains to be seen now is whether Missouri lawmakers, and those in other states, start revising their new early release laws in an attempt to release more -- or fewer -- inmates.

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