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Ending the revolving door

Kelly Wiese//July 31, 2009

Ending the revolving door

Kelly Wiese//July 31, 2009

Mayor Francis Slay has criticized city judges for granting probation too easily. But not everyone thinks that putting a large share of people on probation is wrong.

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff has spoken out about the need for alternatives to prison. Data show that especially for those convicted of nonviolent crimes, Wolff said, sending them to prison lets them learn from the worst and increases the chance of their committing additional and more serious crimes later.

“Prison is prison. It’s not a good place to be. If you lock somebody up with a whole bunch of criminals, who are they likely to learn from?” Wolff said in an interview with MOLW.

The Sentencing Advisory Commission’s report included data showing criminals were less likely to return to a life of crime if courts’ sentences were in line with state sentencing guidelines. The commission found that from fiscal years 1995 to 2007, 37.5 percent of those granted probation were sent to prison within five years. Fifty-eight percent of convicts sent to prison from the start returned within five years.

The report also considered sentencing in light of criminal history. Statewide, one in five criminals with a minimal record who were granted probation wound up in prison within two years. That compares to one in three for those initially sent to prison. For criminals with a long record, the disparity narrowed.

Also, the commission found, when courts followed a state-prepared recommendation to sentence someone to probation, the recidivism rate was 36 percent within five years. When the guidelines called for probation but a judge instead imposed a prison term, the criminals committed more crime 53 percent of the time.

Another way to look at sentencing practices is to see how courts around Missouri are using the sentencing recommendations. Some courts request the sentencing reports regularly, while others, including St. Louis City, St. Louis County and Jackson County, ask for them less than one-fifth of the time.

The sentencing reports take into account various factors and then recommend whether a convict should get probation, a short-term shock sentence or a state prison term, and for how long. The reports contain a general suggestion and then proposed sentences if the judge feels there are factors that justify deviating higher or lower than the typical term.

According to the sentencing commission report, on the cases for which city judges sought sentencing reports, their ultimate sentences fell within the recommended range, when considering unusual factors, 79 percent of the time, compared to a state average of 84 percent.

But St. Louis imposed sentences that were more lenient than the recommendation 11 percent of the time, more than double the state average of 5 percent.

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