State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ray Price told state lawmakers that the Missouri court system cannot absorb any more budget cuts, that they must rethink criminal law and that politics must not become part of the process of choosing judges.
In a 40 minute State of the Judiciary address, Price spoke in blunt terms to a joint session of the General Assembly.
“The judiciary has come to this time of financial crisis already lean,” Price told lawmakers during the speech delivered in the House Chamber.
Price promised that the courts will meet the needs of those who file the 800,000 lawsuits annually in Missouri courts. He added, though, that the courts have come to the point where additional budget cuts would threaten their ability to handle Missouri’s legal business. He urged that the budget cuts already enacted be restored once the economy turned around.
The economic climate that has created the state budget crisis provided the backdrop for Price’s suggestion that lawmakers review criminal law, especially laws against nonviolent offenders. Price stated that the legislature has gotten tough on crime without considering whether that stance has proven effective.
Noting that the criminal justice system is expensive, Judge Price stated, “However, one of the core functions of government is to keep people safe in their homes and safe on the streets. But just because this is one of the most important places that we spend taxpayer money, it does not mean that all of that money is well spent.”
Price said that the “war on drugs”, “three strikes and you’re out” and other efforts to be tough on crime have cost billions without reducing 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,” Price said.
He pointed out that in 1994, shortly after he came to the Supreme Court, the number of nonviolent offenders incarcerated in state prisons stood at 7,461. Today, it is 14,204. The appropriations for the Department of Corrections rose from $216 million in 1994 to the current budget of $670 million. Price said the problem isn’t with the various administrators over the years.
“The problem is that we are following a broken strategy of cramming inmates into prisons and not providing the type of drug treatment and job training that is necessary to break their cycle of crime,” Price stated. “Any normal business would have abandoned this failed practice years ago, and it is costing us our shirts.”
Price urged lawmakers to put more money into drug courts as well as DWI courts, arguing that the 8,500 graduates of drug courts have proven their worth.
Price cautioned against moving to change the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan. He said that Missourians expect their cases to be decided on the merits of the law, not politics.
“Any change that moves the Missouri Plan closer to politics, special interests or money is a change in the wrong direction,” stated Price.
Price related that when he speaks to former state senators and representatives they never talk about money raised or political pressure, but about the good things they did during their time at the Capitol.
“Saving millions of dollars, saving lives and families, making Missouri a safer and better place, is something you can go home and be proud of,” concluded Price.