MISSOURI SUPREME Court Judge William Ray Price Jr. has made a strong case for finding alternatives to prison and better ways to rehabilitate those convicted of crimes.
Price ended two years as chief justice on Missouri's high court last Friday, using his bully pulpit as a means of seeking reform in a prison sentencing system that creates as many problems as it solves.
"What we have to get away from is the thought that simply sentencing a person to a term of incarceration makes the person better -- it doesn't," Price told David Lieb of the Associated Press.
The Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project has done a study of prisons in Missouri and other states seeking the nation's best practices. Some of the findings mirror efforts made in Missouri and suggestions by Price.
In 2003, Missouri law reduced the maximum sentence for the least serious felonies to four years, down from five, for such crimes as drunken driving, passing bad checks and some drug-related offenses. The state's inmate count was 30,200 when the law took effect. Since then the state's prison population has grown less than 2 percent to 30,771.
In addition to allowing shorter sentences for those convicted of non-violent crimes, Missouri has embraced drug courts that seek treatment for violators, rather than incarceration.
Price makes a strong case that prisons are more expensive, and less effective in changing behavior, than some established approaches.
The Missouri Department of Corrections has a budget of $660 million this year, up $85 million from eight years ago. It is no wonder Price said prison cells are little more than "a very expensive concrete box."
Reforming the prison system does not amount to being soft on crime. It is about making smarter decisions.
Prisons are necessary to preserve public safety. Violent criminals should be incarcerated.
The challenge is to find the right mix of punishment, rehabilitation and cost-effective alternatives for non-violent offenders.