Mo. Senate backs plan to shrink prison population

April 15, 2010

Missouri senators narrowly approved legislation Thursday designed to save millions of dollars by keeping people convicted of minor felonies out of prison.

Money saved by putting fewer new people in prison would be split, with the state keeping half and the rest divided among the counties for holding prisoners, the courts and community supervision programs.

The Senate approved the bill 18-13, which is the minimum number of “yes” votes needed to pass legislation. The measure now goes to the House.

The bill would affect people convicted of the lowest category class D felonies, which include such things as possessing burglary tools, damaging property through explosions or fire and persistent drunken driving.

Those crimes currently carry punishments of up to four years in prison.

Under the bill, people convicted of Class D felonies would not be sent to prison unless they have two previous felonies. Instead, they would be directed to treatment programs such as special drug and drunken-driving courts, given probation or sent to county jails.

The legislation also would apply to some Class C felonies, which include such things as drug possession, forgery, check kiting and identify theft involving theft between $500 and $5,000. Those crimes currently carry penalties of up to seven years in prison.

Opponents of the legislation are concerned that some of the people who no longer would be eligible for prison actually belong there. One lawmaker cited the example of exposing oneself to a child, which is in the lowest category of felonies.

Supporters hope the bill will trim Missouri’s prison population by 2,000 people over the next two years and save $26 million by allowing a state prison to be closed. Falling state revenues have prompted lawmakers to scour for ways to cut spending. The idea of trimming prison populations was among those considered last month during an informal Senate discussion about ways to overhaul state government.

Other critics of the legislation are concerned about how the changes will affect counties.

“The smaller counties cannot absorb these extra prisoners,” said Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”

Sen. Matt Bartle, the sponsor of the bill, said many of the least severe category of felonies are drug- or alcohol-related. He said Missouri can no longer afford to incarcerate all of the roughly 30,000 people that generally make up the state’s prison population.

The legislation “doesn’t mean these people don’t get jail time. It means they don’t get sent up with the hardened criminals,” said Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit.

By CHRIS BLANK
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