JEFFERSON CITY - With a state financial crisis and ethics legislation looming at the forefront of Missouri politics, the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court made it clear during his State of the Judiciary Address on Wednesday he "did not come here to give a meaningless speech."
Chief Justice William Ray Price warned legislators against ethics violations and urged an overhaul of the state's system for addressing nonviolent crimes. The speech, which was delivered before a joint session of the state legislature, was one of the more strongly-worded State of the Judiciary addresses in recent memory.
Three issues were addressed in the speech: the state's budget shortfall, methods of dealing with nonviolent crime and an extension of the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, an attempt to reduce partisanship in the judiciary. Although the state budget and ethics have made headlines lately, the majority of the speech was devoted to shortcomings in addressing nonviolent crime in Missouri.
Price said recidivism rates, or the number of repeat offenders, haven't improved in the state, despite significant funding for fighting crime.
"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders," he said. "It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime."
Price suggested sentencing for nonviolent crimes be refined to determine punishments based on individuals' respective risk level. He also issued a controversial call to release some nonviolent criminals from state prisons.
Democrats applauded his suggestion to save money by reducing inmate numbers, but Republicans were generally opposed.
"Even though we are in tough budget times, letting prisoners out should not be an alternative," said House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County.
Pratt said the state could benefit from better rehabilitation programs but said letting convicts out of prison would be a mistake.
The State of the Judiciary address also made harsh allusions to corruption in Missouri politics. Price urged legislators to ignore pressures from special interests and contributors and focus on making Missouri better.
To that end, Price said a change in the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan will lessen the influence of partisan politics on judicial decisions. Under the new rule, the names of those interviewed for appointment to the judiciary will now be released.
"Justice is a sacred but fragile concept," Price said. "It depends upon the eye of the beholder, the trust and confidence of our people. It cannot be for sale to the richest bidder, the most powerful special interest group or to the cleverest consultant."
Price also addressed the state's financial crisis at the beginning of his speech. He said the state Supreme Court will return some state funding this year but will seek additional money once the state's financial crisis has subsided.