|Court ruling clarifies early prison release law|
|By Kansas City Star|
A Missouri Supreme Court ruling may help clarify how officials define violent crimes and will allow a Northland man to seek early release from prison under a new law.
The law, which took effect almost two years ago, allows offenders convicted of some nonviolent crimes to ask for early release after serving 120 days in prison. The new law did not specify which crimes are considered nonviolent.
The ruling this week centers on the case of Lonnie Matthews, who pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted assault for driving the wrong way on U.S. 169 in Clay County and crashing into a vehicle in November 2001. The crash seriously injured the vehicle's teenage driver. Matthews, who was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Under the new state law, first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent class C or D felonies, the lower two tiers in Missouri's felony system, are eligible for the early release program. Second-degree attempted assault is a Class D felony.
In April 2004, Matthews petitioned for early release, but a Clay County judge denied his request, saying that Matthews committed a violent crime. Matthews lost an appeal and asked the Supreme Court to force the lower court to reconsider and obtain a Department of Corrections' report about his prison behavior.
In an opinion written by Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr., second-degree attempted assault was not among those offenses considered violent under state law.
The court ordered the Clay County judge to obtain the behavior report from state corrections officials.
Matthews' attorney, Michael Gunter, said Wednesday that he was pleased with the ruling because it laid the groundwork for crimes of negligence to be reconsidered. However, he said, the decision did not go far enough in its clarification.
Attorney General Jay Nixon declined to comment until he had more time to study the court's ruling. Nixon has expressed concern that thousands of inmates could be placed back on the streets.
More than 700 prisoners have sought early release, but only 18 have been granted a release, said Corrections Department spokesman John Fougere.
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