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Missouri bill aimed at reducing swelling prison population

From: Kansas City Star
Date: 5/14/2003
Time: 9:57:24 AM
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Missouri bill aimed at reducing swelling prison population

By SHASHANK BENGALI The Kansas City Star

FULTON, Mo. - Larry Witherspoon says he's a changed man, his days of drinking and drugs -- the stuff that drove him to stealing and eventually prison -- in the past.

Witherspoon, of Kansas City, credits the past three months he has spent at a minimum-security facility in Fulton serving what the state calls a shock sentence -- 120 days of prison time, with education and treatment for substance abuse and other problems.

Such sentences are aimed at rehabilitating first-time, nonviolent offenders.

"When my wife went blind, I wasn't prepared for it and my whole life got out of proportion," said Witherspoon, 48. "The treatment is really doing good for me. It's got my self-esteem back up and my head cleared."

Witherspoon's story and others like his resonate with some lawmakers. The Missouri House is expected to begin debate today on legislation that would expand the use of shock sentences and allow other nonviolent offenders to petition for release after 120 days.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Harold Caskey, a Democrat from Butler, would also reduce the maximum sentence for the lowest class of felonies from five years to four.

Some prosecutors fear that the bill would go too easy on criminals. Some judges chafe at its sentencing guidelines.

Backers say the bill would keep criminals from committing new crimes and ease the crowding in Missouri's prisons. At least 1,542 beds would initially open up, saving the state about $9 million in the first year and more than double that in subsequent years, according to estimates.

Given the state's dire financial situation, now is an appropriate time to consider alternatives to long prison sentences for some crimes, said Sen. Matt Bartle, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The Senate passed the bill 26-0 last month.

"There's a sense we don't have the right sentencing mix in the state," said Bartle, a Lee's Summit Republican. "Our violent offenders probably need to be put away longer. Some of our lighter offenders probably shouldn't be incarcerated."

Mirroring a national trend in the tough-on-crime 1990s, the state's inmate population has more than doubled since 1991 and now stands at about 30,200. Last year, while the number of inmates in the nation's prisons grew by 2.8 percent, Missouri had a 6.6 percent increase, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

More than half the new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

The Missouri Department of Corrections has filled prisons with more inmates than the facilities were designed to hold. A new maximum-security prison is planned to replace an old one in Jefferson City, but no projects are in the works to add capacity.

Caskey, a former Bates County prosecutor, studied the state's sentencing laws and co-wrote a report called "Arresting the Overflow." The report concluded that mandatory minimum sentences were filling Missouri's prisons -- and sucking up state funds at a rate of about $13,000 per year per prisoner -- but not deterring crime.

State guidelines call for some first-time, nonviolent offenders who are sentenced to prison to enter 120-day shock programs. The programs are designed to treat drug and alcohol addictions and to teach the inmates job skills.

When the 120 days are up, a judge reviews the prisoner's progress and can release the prisoner on probation or parole, or require him or her to serve the longer sentence.

But the current system is not working perfectly, some say. Some inmates, Caskey said, have been left in the programs longer than 120 days because judges have not reviewed their cases in a timely manner.

Under the bill, judges would be required to consider those guidelines and, if they chose not to follow them, explain why in writing. If a judge did not offer an explanation, the Board of Probation and Parole could elect to shorten the sentence.

Also, inmates serving time for the two lowest levels of felonies could petition after 120 days to be released on probation or parole or into an alternative program.

Caskey said some provisions should appeal to law enforcement officials. The bill would increase the maximum sentences for nearly all persistent and dangerous offenders and make endangerment of a child a more serious felony.

The Senate added an amendment sponsored by Bartle that would ban human cloning in Missouri. It also added a provision, backed by Sen. Charles Wheeler, a Kansas City Democrat, that would make it a felony to tamper with prescription drugs.

If the bill passes, Missouri would join several other states that have recently enacted alternative sentencing laws. In Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius last month signed legislation to allow some drug offenders to enroll in community treatment programs instead of going to prison.

Meanwhile, in Fulton, Witherspoon is two weeks away from completing his shock sentence. Anger-management classes have helped him get his emotions under control, he has learned to write a resume, and substance abuse treatment has helped him -- he thinks -- kick his addiction.

Rather than serve out his five-year prison sentence, he hopes to be released on probation and reunite with his wife, who is still struggling with the diabetes that stole her eyesight. He'll be a better husband, he said, and he talked eagerly of joining a blind community with her.

"I've got myself together," he said. "County jail would have never helped me."

The legislation is SB5.

Last changed: May 14, 2003