State chief justice urges new method for crime fight

Thursday, February 4, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri wastes considerable money by putting nonviolent offenders in prison and mishandling those convicted of drug and alcohol crimes, Chief Justice William Ray Price told state lawmakers Wednesday while urging a new crime-fighting strategy.

Price told a joint legislative session during his State of the Judiciary speech that Missouri officials have spent years being tough on crime by putting more people in prison and that the state has spent billions of dollars while crime has not been reduced. He called for a new technique that uses special drug and drunken-driving courts and rehabilitation efforts to cut down on recidivism of nonviolent offenders.

"The problem is that we are following a broken strategy of cramming inmates into prisons and not providing the type of drug treatment and job training that is necessary to break their cycle of crime," Price said. "Any normal business would have abandoned this failed practice years ago, and it is costing us our shirts."

It has resulted in large increases in the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, more spending on state prisons and overworked prosecutors and public defenders, Price said.

Increasing pressure on the criminal justice system also has come from defending the poor who are accused of crimes.

In December, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned rules adopted by the state Public Defender Commission that would have allowed state defenders to reject some poor clients. The public defenders contend attorneys are overloaded and do not have enough state funding.

County prosecutors say they also struggle with full caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and other problems facing public defenders.

Price said both prosecutors and public defenders are facing problems. He said lawmakers can resolve the problems plaguing indigent defense by putting more money into the public defender system or granting it more authority to determine what clients it will accept.

Republican Gov. John Ashcroft appointed Price to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1992.

House Crime Prevention Committee chairman Scott Lipke, who previously worked in a Southeast Missouri prosecutor's office, said there needs to be more consistency in setting prison sentences and more focus on treatment programs for those convicted of crimes.

"We have to move toward rehabilitating people," said Lipke, R-Jackson.

Price said reconfiguring how Missouri tries to reduce crime will require statewide coordination and careful deliberation. He said some laws would need to be changed, some prison inmates would need to be diverted and that others would need to be removed from prisons after learning their lessons but before they spend too much time surrounded by others who have been convicted of more serious crimes.

Among the policies Price endorsed were special courts for drug offenses and drunken driving. He said the courts reduce recidivism and help offenders by working on curing addictions. Price urged lawmakers to expand the courts, while acknowledging he erred five years ago by not accepting an offer to expand the budget for drug courts.

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