Judge William Ray Price, Jr. served on the Missouri Supreme Court for 20 years including two terms as chief justice.
Price left the high court earlier this month to return to private practice.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman spoke with the judge about why it’s important to seek alternatives to prison and other issues facing Missouri courts.
Price: When we put people in jail it costs us an extraordinary amount of money and they generally don’t get better just for being in jail. A better alternative is to save money not putting them in jail and give them the type of rehabilitation programs, drug, and alcohol treatment they need to return as productive members of society. Drug courts have shown that at a far lower cost we can have a far better result; that is less people that get in trouble again.
Altman: And Missouri has really been a leader nationally in terms of drug courts. What more can Missouri do?
Price: The drug courts that are across the state generally indicate to us that they could increase their scope by a factor of two if they had the resources. So we need to fully fund them to scale so that they can do all the good that they are set up to do. We also need to take that concept and expand it to other areas where it’s not just people who have drug problems, but people with mental health problems and other kinds of problems can be treated outside at a third of the cost and far better results.
Really what I’m saying is we need cost benefit analysis like in any business. You look and say “what’s the goal of the criminal justice system: is it to put people in jail or is it to make a safer, better society for you and me?”
Altman: Public defenders have been in the news quite a bit, especially with their caseloads and the recent Supreme Court decision that a judge in Christian County should not have appointed a public defender when their protocol said they’d reached their caseload limit. How do you think Missouri in the long term is going to balance that Constitutional requirement that defendants have representation but also that they have competent representation?
Price: This is kind of the flip of the coin of what we’ve just been talking about. If you’re looking at putting people in jail it’s a very expensive proposition. So the more people we charge the more public defenders we have to hire to represent them. Our tax dollars are precious. We want a very safe community. How do we get the safest community possible at the lowest expense?
So really what the movement is and what I’ve been trying to do is say look at the offender; what’s caused this person to get in trouble? What is the cheapest way that I can get the highest likelihood that this person won’t get in trouble again? And then do that; not just look at the number of years we put someone in jail as a measure of justice.
Altman: Have you seen a shift in the Legislature and politicians who typically have been tough on crime in their thinking about these things?
Price: Yes, there’s been a tremendous shift in the legislature. Just this year we had a criminal reform statute passed that would move more in the direction we’re talking about. There’s much farther to go, but they are starting to go that way.
Altman: Do judges make enough money in Missouri?
Price: You know, that’s a difficult thing. If you compare to what ordinary people make judges do pretty well. If you compare it to what most lawyers make judges don’t get paid well at all. So I advocated and we got a raise for our judges two years ago that went into effect this year, but we’re not even close to what good lawyers make now so it impacts our ability to get good people.
Price also talked about how Missouri chooses judges, called the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan and recent efforts to change that system, including a proposed constitutional amendment that will be on this November’s ballot: