Saturday, April 16, 2011

Missouri Looks to Abolish Sentencing Commission

Missouri has taken a step toward dismantling their sentencing commission. Last week, the Missouri house voted to abolish the commission. Missouri and Pennsylvania are among about 20 states that have sentencing commissions.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, at issue in Missouri is the development of "evidence-based" sentencing guidelines, which try to assess a criminal's risk of reoffending as an element in whether to send the person to prison.

Legislators established the commission in 1993 to study sentencing practices, then amended the law in 2003 to ask the group to establish a system for sentencing recommendations. Since 2005, judges have received reports that suggest a sentence, taking into account information such as the offender's age, work history, education and criminal history. The judges have discretion in whether to follow the guidelines or ignore them, reported the Post-Dispatch.

In fact, the House's action came a day after a nonprofit group released a national study that singled out Missouri for "dramatic" progress in reducing the number of repeat offenders.

According to the Post-Dispatch, the percentage of Missouri offenders who returned to prison within two years dropped to 36.4 percent for those released in 2009, down from nearly half of those released in 2004, according to the study by the Pew Center on the States. The study gave credit to Missouri for mapping out "a meticulous plan for managing all but the most serious violators in the community" and for extensive training of probation and parole officers in how to use the new "risk assessment" tool, reported the Post-Dispatch.

"The fact is, it's being effective," Mike Wolff, Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolf who is also the longtime chairman of the state's sentencing commission, told the Post-Dispatch.

"The end of this commission will, in fact, remove the inaccurate information that is communicated to our sentencing judges in the state of Missouri, whereby liberal judges are given cover to release from prison or reduce the sentence and give lighter sentences to the worst offenders, second offenders and violent offenders," the bill's sponsor Representative Stanley Cox, told the Post-Dispatch.

The House passed the bill on a vote of 100-57. It now moves to the Senate, which has until May 13, the Legislature's mandatory adjournment, to decide whether to pass it.

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