How The Star sorted, analyzed data in probation investigation

08/02/2014 5:00 PM

08/02/2014 6:11 PM

Kansas City Star reporters spent six months digging into the issue of violent criminals who get probation. Mark Morris and Glenn E. Rice interviewed victims’ families, examined hundreds of pages of court documents and talked to police, prosecutors, judges and criminologists.

But data played the key role in gauging the issue.

In January, The Star downloaded a copy of a massive database maintained by the Missouri Department of Corrections. It contains names, charges, sentence lengths and other details on criminals who have served time in a Missouri prison or have been under the supervision of probation officers.

After narrowing the data to the most recent five years, the reporters sorted it to obtain sentences by crime for Jackson, Clay and Platte counties. Later they sorted data for the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and courts statewide to use for comparison with local counties.

The data file shows who received prison terms, who received probation and who received 120 days of treatment or “shock time” followed by probation. The Star removed duplicated records from the file.

After analyzing general probation trends, Morris and Rice focused on probation sentences given for second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, first-degree robbery and Class A felony assaults — the most serious violent crimes for which state judges can allow probation.

The probation data applied to cases involving a suspended execution of sentence, or SES. In such cases, a judge imposes a prison sentence, then suspends it and places the defendant under probation for a set period, such as five years. Should the defendant violate the terms of probation during that time, the judge can send him or her to prison to serve the original sentence.

In addition, The Star looked at state sentencing statistics containing all probation types, including suspended imposition of sentence, or SIS. In such cases, a defendant remains free without Corrections Department oversight. If the defendant completes probation successfully, his or her criminal record is wiped clean. For that reason, data provided from the state on SIS probation does not include defendants’ names.

That data showed the percentage of violent crime defendants receiving probation of any kind largely matched The Star’s analysis of the first data set.

Numbers cited in these stories come from The Star’s original analysis of SES probation because knowing the defendants’ names allowed Morris and Rice to study the individual crimes, identify victims and provide a more complete picture of the sentences imposed.

Jay Pilgreen assisted in data compilation.

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