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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pilot program credited for drop in Missouri prison population

ST. LOUIS — Over the last six years, Missouri has evolved into a national model for helping released prisoners re-enter society and not reoffend. Overcrowding led the state to accept a national group’s offer in 2002 to be a pilot for reducing recidivism.

Today, in part because of the program’s success, Missouri has 700 fewer inmates than its peak population of 30,700 in October 2005, corrections officials said.

But in the case of nonviolent offenders, the wiser sentence may not be prison at all, but rather probation, restitution, treatment or other alternatives, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said.

Wolff addressed a conference Wednesday on prisoner re-entry for 300 Missouri Department of Corrections managers and administrators. As chair of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, he led a team that crafted the state’s approach to sentencing that took effect in 2005.

Wolff, citing Missouri corrections statistics, said offenders convicted of nonviolent felony stealing were far less likely to reoffend when they were sentenced to probation or community service than prison.

“So does prison cause recidivism?” Wolff asked. “The data look ominous. Prison is ‘criminogenic.’ It encourages or teaches offenders to do further crimes.

“If we put nonviolent offenders in prison with violent offenders, the nonviolent do seem to learn from the violent. And the other way around? Not so much.”

Wolff said sentencing should be no more harsh than warranted, and that community-based sanctions should be preferred over incarceration for nonviolent offenders. [Mark Godsey]

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