As Linn County changes Circuit Judges for the first time in 17 years, it may also witness some substantial changes in sentencing that have nothing to do with the election of Terry Tschannen or the retirement of Gary Ravens. However, Judge Ravens had already adopted some of the State’s new sentencing guidelines (i.e., 120-day shock incarceration), and emphasis on treatment for drug offenders, long before the Missouri Legislature and Governor codified them into law last July.
There wasn’t much fanfare six months ago when Gov. Jay Nixon approved the ‘sweeping changes’ in sentencing recommendations that had already sailed through the Missouri House by a vote of 151-0 and the Missouri Senate by a vote of 24-3. The new sentencing guidelines, which resulted from one of the few bills to enjoy bi-partisan support in the Missouri General Assembly in 2012, are aimed at substantially reducing the recidivism rate (i.e., rate of re-offending) while concurrently slashing escalating expenditures by the Missouri Dept. of Corrections (DOC).
Surpassed by only the states of California and Utah, the rate at which Missouri criminal offenders committed further violations rose to 54.4 percent between 2004 and 2007, well above the national average of 43.3 percent. Missouri’s recidivism rate has since leveled off at an increase of about one percent per year, but at a price of over $660 million annually. The biggest expenses are associated with incarceration. DOC’s budget remains unsustainable given today’s economic realities and the commensurate need to reduce the deficit at both the state and federal levels. From 1990 to 2009, spending for corrections in the Show-Me State increased by 249 percent, while overall general revenue expenditures only increased by 14 percent. But DOC’s spiraling expenditures haven’t produced greater public safety as almost four of 10 inmates released from prison will return to lockup within two years. Most of the offenders are returning to prison as the result of ‘technical violations’ of their terms of probation or parole (i.e., failing a drug screen, not reporting to their probation officers (POs) as directed, associating with felons, or failing to make restitution as ordered by the court). In 2010, 83 percent of those who had their probation revoked, and were imprisoned as a result, had been under court-ordered supervision for non-violent offenses.
Working with nonpartisan investigators from the Pew Center, the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections—hereafter referred to as ‘Working Group’—-learned that between 1990 and 2005, Missouri prison populations increased by 142 percent, and that almost three-quarters of those inmates were incarcerated as a result of probation or parole revocations, often for ‘technical violations’ rather than for committing new crimes. Moreover, a substantial majority were nonviolent offenders, usually imprisoned for drug offenses. In his 2010 State of the Judiciary address, then-Missouri Supreme Court Justice William “Ray” Price summed up the situation: “Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders. It is costing us billions of dollars, and it is not making a dent in crime.”