JEFFERSON CITY - With little debate, Missouri's Senate gave initial approval to a landmark sentencing bill aimed at curbing the explosive growth in the state's prison population.
Bill sponsor Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, said the measure would free up more than 1,500 beds in Missouri's prison system, roughly five percent of the total, and potentially allow the Corrections Department to close one of the state's prisons.
Caskey said the bill would save the state's taxpayers $30 million over the next two years and millions more in the future.
The law would reduce the state's prison population by making a number of changes in criminal procedures and sentencing guidelines.
Among them is a provision that would allow nonviolent, first-time Class C or D felons to apply for parole after serving just four months in prison. Class C and D felonies are generally property crimes such as theft, forgery, or bribery.
The other provisions of the amended bill include:
* Reducing the minimum amount of time a felon would have to serve before being eligible for parole. Judges would have the option to parole convicts after they serve just 30 percent of their sentence. Previous laws mandated prisoners serve 40 to 80 percent of their sentence depending on the number of prior offenses.
* Allowing those convicted of certain offenses to undergo 12 to 24 months of institutional alcohol abuse treatment in lieu of a prison sentence.
* Eliminating mandatory probation for those convicted of theft and related property crimes. Judges would still have the option of including probation as part of the sentence.
* Permitting nonviolent offenders with two years or less remaining of their sentences to apply to be released to house arrest. Current law does not allow prisoners to apply unless they have less than one year remaining.
The amended bill also increases penalties on several crimes. Those accused of stealing chemicals for the manufacture of methamphetamines would face longer sentences, as would those accused of domestic abuse, elder abuse, or assaulting a police officer. Pharmacists convicted of adultering or diluting prescription drugs would now be charged with the most serious level of felony, Class A.
The new sentencing law still must gain final approval in the Senate before being sent to the Missouri House, where majority floor leader Rep. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, has said the bill will receive careful consideration.
Stiffer sentencing laws passed in the 1990s have caused Missouri's prison population to double over the past ten years, forcing state funding for the Corrections Department to double as well. Currently the state spends more on the Corrections Department than the entire four-campus University of Missouri system.
According to the Corrections Department, as of June 30 of last year Missouri's prisons held 6,422 nonviolent drug offenders at a cost of approximately $35 a day each. Those being electronically monitored under house arrest cost the state significantly less -- just under $10 a day.
With Missouri facing a shortfall of more than $700 million, Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are continuing to search for ways to trim state spending.
Senate Appropriations Chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon, said the sentencing bill was one positive step in helping to align Missouri's spending with its revenues, but that its effects would be felt more greatly in future years as the number of prisoners in the system drops.
"For now it's a drop in the bucket," he said. "But every little bit helps."