Now is the time to discuss prison sentences

I've made a couple of trips to Jefferson City, Mo., the last few weeks to advocate for reducing prison sentences. This is the right time. Legislators are listening.

They are listening for a lot of reasons. First, incarceration is expensive. Second, in the case of many first-time offenders, prison is ineffective, to say the least; fellow inmates teach criminal behavior. Third, prison is the least effective treatment for addiction. Fourth, other states are reducing their prison populations while crime continues to go down.

Crime is going down in Missouri, too, but the population continues to creep up. Turns out Missouri has a high rate of re-incarceration for technical parole violations like missing appointments, testing positive for a drug, getting a traffic ticket. In 2010, two-thirds of prison admissions were parole and probation revocations. That's different than being charged with and convicted of a new crime.

The change process is painfully slow. There's a good bill to work off parole time by good behavior -- Missouri has lengthier sentences and paroles than most states -- but if you get charged with a violation, you lose some of that time, and you don't get it back if the charge proves bogus.

There are two bills to ban the death penalty and one to study it; a bill for Missouri to opt out of the federal ban on those with drug felony convictions receiving food stamps (40 states have opted out); two clemency bills that would require the parole board to review cases with lengthy sentences and make recommendations for clemency. I plan to testify at a clemency bill hearing next week.

But even the clemency bills stress cost savings, not mercy and compassion. I'll keep you up to date on whether anything passes.

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