Missouri provides sentencing costs

Sept. 20

Missouri has taken an important step forward, by providing its judges with the cost of imprisonment when sentencing felony offenders. According to an article in the New York Times, “Legal experts say no other state systematically provides such information to judges, a practice put into effect here last month by the state’s sentencing advisory commission, an appointed board that offers guidance on criminal sentencing.”

Missouri has consistently been a leader in prison reform with such alternatives to prison as “split sentencing” and reentry courts.  This year, in his annual address, the chief justice of Missouri’s Supreme Court, William Ray Price Jr., stated “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”. Missouri is only one of many states whose courts are now taking a hard look at the cost of sending non-violent offenders to prison, rather than keeping them in more cost-effective community based prison alternatives (such as pre-entry courts).

Supreme Court to hear Cal Prison Case

The U.S. Supreme court has agreed to hear an appeal of  Schwarenegger v. Plata, where a three judge appellate panel found  California to be denying prisoners adequate medical and mental health care, in violation of the “cruel and unusual punishment” provision of the U.S. Constitution. The Appellate panel ordered the State of California to reduce its prison population (now at approximately 150,000) by 40,000 prisoners, by December, 2011 (AP story).

In a similar vein, another recent news story told the sad tale of state’s reducing and in some cases eliminating prison based drug and other treatment/rehabilitation based programs (AP story). One can only hope that these programs are being cut back because of states’ intent to release drug dependent offenders, to be provided treatment and rehabilitation services in their communities. As unlikely as that may be, it will be incumbent on all to be vigilant and proactive in maintaining and expanding treatment both inside and outside of state prison walls.

Texas Slows The Revolving Door To Prison

From the Pew Center for the States’ Public Safety Performance Project publication (see article above),” Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years” (p.3):

 Texas faced a projected prison population increase of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years.  Rather than spend nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policy makers reinvested a fraction of this amount—$241 million—in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs. This strategy has greatly expanded sentencing options for new offenses and sanctioning options for probation violators. Texas also increased its parole grant rate and shortened probation terms. As a result, this strong law-and-order state not only prevented the large projected population increase but reduced its prison population over the three years since the reforms were passed. (Note: one of a panoply of prison alternatives, Texas’ thriving reentry court system diverts offenders from prison into county based SAFPF Reentry Courts)

Pre-entry Courts in the Age of Reentry

Pre-Entry Court is a county probation-based reentry court and an advanced next generation drug court, . Typically, non-violent drug offenders are placed on  probation, with a state prison sentence suspended, and the offender ordered to attend, participate, and complete an in-custody treatment program as a condition of probation ( for those legally inclined, “execution of sentence is suspended”).  In essence, rather than dealing with the  offender after they serve a prison term (with all its dibilitating consequences) they are given their last best opportunity to enter a “pre-entry court” (or a “before entry to  prison court”) and avoid a formal prison commitment.

For example,  County Jail-Based Reentry Courts offer the possibility of reducing state prison populations with their extraordinary costs,while providing the serious non-violent offender, the  seamless  monitoring, treatment, and rehabilitative services of  a comprehensive drug court.  (It can be confusing at first, to realize that there are two kinds of reentry courts, one dealing with prison reentry, the other with those returning from extended jail or other probation-based custodial programs.)

Optimally, Pre-entry Courts (typically county-jail based reentry courts)  engage the offender at the time of plea and assessment through sentencing, entry into, and completion from an in-custody rehabilitation program. When released from custodial status into the community, the pre-entry court judge and team continue to monitor the probationer through progress hearings and finally program graduation.

Ultimately, a pre-entry court will be part of a Next Generation Drug Court System, providing comprehensive drug court services  to returnees from jail, other county-based custodial programs,  probation revocations, prison (and more traditional drug court participants, who typically do not receieve  an immediate custodial sentence). The emergence of fledgling  pre-entry courts, while focused mostly on those with substance abuse problems, is an important development in criminal justice reform, and arguably the best way to reduce both prison over-crowding and prison reentry failure, whether offenders are drug involved or not. [for a unique example of a pre-entry court, see Dallas SAFPF Reentry Court]

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