Missouri has a problem. While crime has dropped across the nation and in Missouri, during the past six years the Missouri prison population has grown from 30,000 to 33,000. In 1982, only about 8000 people were in prison.
How did we get here?
- We closed mental hospitals and began incarcerating the mentally ill. The Treatment Advocacy Center 2014 report counts 356,269 inmates with severe mental illness. This is a problem expanded Medicaid is slowly treating by providing mental health care for people and preventing crime. Missouri has no expanded Medicaid.
- A second big cause for the growth of our prison population is mandatory minimums, the so-called "truth in sentencing" or "three strikes and you're out." Missouri legislation has created a dangerous felony category that enhances sentences and also demands up to 85% time served for repeat offenders, even if the offenses are many years apart and may be non-violent. The worst example I know is a man serving 17 years for theft of a lawn mower to support his drug habit. He had successfully completed his sentence and parole time for robbery, but he lost his job and got hooked on drugs again.
- Drug offenses have also increased the prison population, of course. The disparity between penalties for possession of powder and crack cocaine has been lessened from 100 to 1 down to 18 to 1; but it is still a stiff disparity. And the benefits of the change are not retroactive. There will be a further lessening of penalties when Missouri's revised Criminal Code goes into effect next January; but again the benefits are not retroactive.
- The Legislature has also criminalized poverty, making it a felony to write a bad check or fail to return rental furniture. These used to be cases for the civil courts, but now criminal law has taken over debt collection (but not bankruptcy, the solution for those who can afford attorneys).
- Sentences have been lengthened for violent crimes and sex offenses. At first blush it is counter-intuitive to say this is a bad idea, but, case-by-case, it's a real question whether these longer sentences for gun possession or bank robbery or non-predator sex offenses protect the public or rehabilitate the offender.
- Finally, in recent years, the Board of Probation and Parole has reduced the number of paroles it is granting and the Governor has not granted clemencies.
Strategies for Seeking Solutions
The Empower Missouri Criminal Justice Task Force to which I belong is asking: How do we get people out of prison and living productive lives? How do we correct the racial injustices that have been committed, albeit unwittingly?
We recognize that this is a bi-partisan political problem caused by 30 years of legislation. But it is also a fiscal problem. There is talk of building another prison, a $3 million project, despite the drop in crime. Then there's the cost of housing the inmates, including the added cost of geriatric units. Also, data shows that shorter sentences are more effective than longer time spent in prison if one goal is to help the inmate reform.
- The simplest strategy for reducing the numbers in prison would be to make the benefits of current reform legislation retroactive.
- Probably the most complex legislative task would be to identify the laws that criminalize poverty and return oversight to civil law.
- Mandatory minimums are the reason for the largest increase in the prison population. Data shows that the added punishment of mandatory minimums does not provide effective rehabilitation and that elimination of mandatory minimums even for violent crimes would not put public safety at risk.
- Several bills have been introduced in recent years to allow the Parole Board to review inmates' sentences after they have served 15 or 20 years or are over 60 years of age. These bills recognize that few older persons commit crimes, that some long sentences may have been influenced by other factors than whether the crime was heinous, and that incarcerating older persons is expensive.
It is possible to reduce the Missouri prison population significantly without threat to public safety, but it will take political will. That's what's missing.