Reducing the population in prison

I drove last Wednesday from St. Louis to Jefferson City to meet with the chair of the House Committee on Corrections. Our agenda was -- and continues to be -- how to develop and pass legislation that will reduce the number of men and women in prison. 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 32,000. In 1982, only about 8,000 people were in prison.

How did we get to this pretty pass? 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, alas, has not 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 longer prison time for repeat offenders, even if the offenses are many years apart and may be non-violent. One size does not fit all.

Drug offenses have also increased the prison population, of course. But 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.

Finally, 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 protect the public or rehabilitate the offender.

So the Empower Missouri Criminal Justice Task Force (that’s me) and the House Committee on Corrections (that’s the committee chair) are trying to figure out where to begin. How do we get people out of prison and living productive lives? We meet with the Speaker of the House next week. I’ll let you know if we develop a plan. 

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