(MISSOURINET)- The early release of convicted felons from prison. It’s a hot button issue that Missouri’s Department of Corrections and the Missouri Sheriffs Association do not see eye to eye on.
Kevin Merritt, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs Association, says many convicted felons are getting out of the state’s prisons way too soon. He says changes in state law and Department of Corrections policies are making Missouri’s communities more dangerous.
According to Merritt, some prisoners are eligible for parole after serving 15% of their sentence.
“Right now the rule of thumb is, when an individual goes to the Department of Corrections as a convicted felon, they’re serving approximately a month to a month and a half for every year that they were sentenced to prison,” says Merritt.
Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe says the average stay varies upon the crime but says the average length each prisoner serves has increased over the past five years to 53%.
“The courts, who sentence offenders, they’re the ones who determine the length of the sentence within statutory requirements and then the Parole Board is making those informed, evidence-based decisions about whether someone is allowed to be released to the community,” she says.
Last year, the Legislature passed a measure scrapping mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes. It also recently overhauled the state’s criminal code and added a Class E felony. Both efforts affect Missouri’s overall prison population.
The changes followed lengthy work in 2017 by stakeholders within the criminal justice system to find ways to trim the state’s increasing levels of incarceration. The process included judges, legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections and mental health officials and others. In July 2017, Missouri’s total prison population was about 34,000, compared to the current count of roughly 26,000.
“We were facing a crisis,” says Precythe. “We were looking at having to build two new prisons. That would have cost the state about $500 million that we don’t have. But we are still pursuing good criminal justice reform practices. We’re not doing anything crazy within the department. Really, the goal of criminal justice reform is, is to get the low-risk, non-violent people out of prison and save that space and those monies for the violent, repeat offenders.”
Merritt says the state agency is not penalizing parole violators enough after testing positive for drugs.
“DOC and the Probation and Parole Division and the Parole Board, they are releasing convicted felons like they’re giving out get out of jail free cards,” Merritt says. “Not violating parole offenders for testing positive for drugs – that’s a policy decision out of Department of Corrections. We don’t want new laws. We just want the laws that are on the books to be enforced and we want bad policy decisions to be addressed.”
Precythe says probation and parole practices have not changed.
“They are being carried out, as they always have been, in accordance with the Missouri Constitution and state law. Just like law enforcement affords people due process when they’re arrested for a crime, the Parole Board is affording people due process when they’re out of compliance with their terms of supervision,” says Precythe.
Merritt goes on to say the state refuses to take parole violators back to prison after they are captured for a parole arrest warrant.
“They will require the sheriff to hold that person in the local jail and they will send a probation officer to the local jail to interview the person on the parole warrant to determine if they’re going to follow through on the arrest warrant and actually seek revocation of that person’s parole. So, they’ll come to the jail whenever they get time,” he says.
Once a report is written up, it gets sent to the Parole Board for action.
Precythe says a warrant kicks in for those failing to report an address change, going to treatment or testing positive on a drug test.
“I think that’s where folks want to confuse them and think that all people who violate probation or parole supervision are bad people and deserve to go back to prison when that is not in fact the case. There are some and those people are returned to prison,” says Precythe.
Merritt is working with the Governor’s Office about department policies because he says he wasn’t getting anywhere with the department. He says the agency has an agenda and is sticking to it – to reduce Missouri’s prison population.
Precythe says they are in different philosophical places when it comes to criminal justice and it’s difficult for others to understand the department’s unique role.