Chief Justice Ray Price

State Chief Justice Ray Price has two messages of lawmakers in his State of the Judiciary address: the same messages he has delivered before.

Price, chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, tells a joint session of the legislature Missouri is throwing too many non-violent offenders into prison.

“We continue to over-incarcerate nonviolent offenders, while we have failed to expand drug courts and other diversionary and re-entry programs to capacity,” Price tells legislators. “The result is a state that is not as safe as we want it to be and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Price says that Missouri has tried to incarcerate its way out of crime and illegal drug use. Price says the state has been tough on crime, but not smart on crime. He points out that prison population has grown from 612,000 in 1982 to 2.3 million today.

The Chief Justice says the failure of the strategy is apparent in the state’s recidivism rate. More than half of the people released from Missouri prisons returned within five years, according to Price.

Price calls prison “the most expensive and least effective strategy for a significant number of nonviolent offenders.” He touts drug courts as an example of “tough, effective, local alternatives to prisons” that can break the cycle of addiction and then break the cycle of crime. Price says the state needs to move away from anger-based, prison-focused sentencing to alternative sanctions that change lives and focus on results.

Price defends the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan during the address, even with some of its staunchest opponents in the audience.

“There are two alternatives that have been suggested by critics of the Missouri Plan. I am certain that those who suggest these alternatives are sincere, but I do not believe that they understand the dangers inherent in their suggested alternatives,” Price states. “The worst alternative is direct election of judges. The reason is simple. Money.”

The Missouri Plan, according to Price, balances the need for legal ability, everyday common sense and responsibility to the people in a way that preserves the integrity, fairness and impartiality of the judge.

Grumblings about the Missouri Plan have surfaced as proposed legislation in the General Assembly. Such proposals have run the gamut from a complete scrapping of the Missouri Plan, first adopted by popular vote in 1940, to various proposed changes. Few lawmakers have suggested reverting to direct elections, but some have floated proposals to have Missouri appellate judges, including State Supreme Court judges, be appointed through a process similar to the federal judicial selection process.

Price calls that alternative problematic as well. He points out that federal judges serve for life and aren’t subject to retention votes as are judges chosen through the Missouri Plan. He calls it a purely political system that would include only state senators and the governor. Price also reminds lawmakers of the gridlock in Washington over judicial appointments.

“Justice is sacred, but fragile,” Price says. “It belongs to the people, not to either political party, not to any special interest.”

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:15 MP3]

AUDIO: Chief Justice Ray Price delivers State of Judiciary address to a joint session of the legislature [40:40 MP3]