Law Matters -- Missouri Sentencing: Crimes, Punishments and Public
Content date: 07/26/2006
The following reflections of Missouri
Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff make up his July 2006 Law
you do the crime, you'll do the time." To law-abiding citizens, this
catch-phrase may sound like a simple yet perfect sentencing formula. Simple in
theory, but reality is ... not so simple.
thief steals your car, your first emotional response may be that he should be
put in prison for the rest of his life. At least that would keep him from
stealing any more cars. Even if a life sentence feels, for the moment, like it
fits the crime, it may not serve the traditional notions of justice or fit the
When legislators enact laws
prescribing ranges of punishments, they may take incentives into account: if
stealing a car were to carry the same punishment as shooting a person, for
example, wouldn't the car thief shoot you and then take your car? The punishment
would be the same. That is one reason the law establishes different ranges of
punishment for different crimes.
Legislators also may
consider the cost of prison versus the alternatives. There currently are more
than 30,000 individuals in prison and nearly 70,000 on probation or parole. The
cost of prison is $39.13 per day per inmate, not including costs of building
prisons. Intensive or community-structured supervision, including drug court
supervision, costs $6.25 per day; electronic monitoring is $10 per day; and
regular probation averages $2.17 per day. Operating costs for prisons and
correctional programs is about $638 million per year and does not include
Sentencing to prevent
Sentencing options include prison,
probation, a community-structured sentence consisting of an intensely supervised
probation with strict conditions, or a "shock" probation sentence in which
offenders are evaluated during the first 120 days to determine whether they
should remain in prison for a longer term or be released to community
The 120-day sentence can include
institutional treatment, substance abuse or sex-offender evaluation.
As every parent learns about discipline, the
punishment has to fit the offense. When a judge – like a parent – chooses a
punishment, the judge tries to make sure that a particular offender does not
repeat bad behavior.
Avoiding future crimes is
important because more than 97 percent of felony offenders in Missouri
eventually are released from prison.
sentencing, a judge's foremost concerns are justice – an elusive concept – and
public safety. Violent felonies raise concern for public safety and typically
draw long sentences. In
less severe cases, for example, drug possession, theft or vandalism, the judge
tries to set sentences that will help prevent offenders from repeating their
The judge is not alone in
considering justice and public safety in sentencing. Prosecutors, defense
lawyers and probation officers also play roles in sentencing. And in a few
cases, juries recommend sentences. Many sentences result from plea agreements
between prosecutors and defense attorneys. In those cases, the judge may allow
the attorneys to agree on the sentence or on the range of punishment, but the
judge is free to reject the agreement. This requires a trial or a new
Fully informed judicial
Each crime carries a range of
punishments that can be imposed. Some offenses carry mandatory minimum terms;
for some violent offenses, the law prescribes a certain percentage of the
sentence be served in prison before parole.
the end, within the limits of the law, the sentence is within the discretion of
the trial court judge.
To support this judicial
discretion in felony cases, the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission –
working in close cooperation with the Department of Corrections, the Board of
Probation and Parole, and the Missouri Judiciary – has developed a system of
recommendations that includes the various options available.
These recommendations help make all who deal with
sentencing – courts, prosecutors and defense counsel – as fully informed as
possible of the options available for managing the offenders, the risk factors
that may predict whether an offender may re-offend, and the guidelines and
practices of the parole board in releasing offenders on parole.
The recommended sentences – which are based on the
actual sentences for each offense – become progressively more severe depending
on the offender's prior criminal history.
sentencing an offender, a judge may ask for a sentencing assessment report. The
report, prepared by one of the state's 1,200 probation officers, includes the
details of the offense; the impact on the victim; the offender's prior criminal
history; an evaluation of the offender's characteristics that relate to the risk
of re-offending, including education, job status and substance abuse; and a
management plan for dealing with the offender, whether in prison, in a 120-day
sentence for evaluation or treatment, on probation, or in some community-based
information-based system, fully implemented since November 2005, continues to be
evaluated. Detailed information about the commission's composition, processes,
analyses and recommendations – as well as the sentencing options and
alternatives available in Missouri's courts – is available on the commission's
Web site, www.mosac.mo.gov.
Sentencing is probably the most difficult
task facing any trial judge. Trial court judges sometimes worry whether a
particular sentence is the "right" one ... whether it will make the offender do
the right "time" for the crime, whether in prison or on community supervision …
and whether the sentence ultimately will serve justice and protect the public.
The information available will help the judge make better decisions in many
cases, but there are no easy answers.