Missouri’s leaders are doing taxpayers no favors by repeatedly delaying the fixes that the state’s corrections system so badly needs. The system is running at 105 percent of capacity and needs a significant economic investment to relieve the pressure. A comprehensive study says that if Missouri doesn’t invest now, two new prisons will have to be built at even higher cost to taxpayers.
Andy Barbee, director of research for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, says Missouri’s current system is at a “make-or-break” moment, and critical changes are necessary to reduce the prison population. Gov. Eric Greitens and other state officials asked the council to conduct the study last spring.
The study suggests that a $189 million investment, mostly to expand and improve community-based treatment options, would address the prison overpopulation problem at its roots. The alternative is to pay $485 million to build and operate new prisons. Missouri can save money, help more people and produce better long-term results by shifting the focus from incarceration to community treatment systems.
More prisons do not provide a long-term solution. Missouri needs to stop using prisons as drug-treatment facilities and should close the revolving door of incarceration for people who, in many cases, have done nothing more than violate terms of supervised release. Missouri has more than 36,000 people spread across 21 prisons. Of 19,000 people incarcerated in 2016, about 85 percent were returning.
Half were re-incarcerated for violating prison release terms, and a third were re-sentenced for drug treatment. The annual cost of caring for an inmate in Missouri is at least $20,000. Technical parole revocations are a poor use of limited resources. Prison-based drug treatment is expensive and about as effective as not providing any treatment at all, the council says.
Missouri could reduce treatment-related admissions by 50 percent by investing in community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment services. Better training, probation and parole management and use of technology could reduce technical parole revocations by up to 30 percent.
Missouri, the nation’s 18th most-populous state, has more women in prison than any other state and is ranked eighth nationally for overall inmate population. Despite the high incarceration numbers, Missouri’s violent urban crime problem hasn’t abated.
The council is affiliated with the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which has helped prompt reforms in 27 other state prison systems. The state’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force unanimously approved the council’s recommendations. In signing an executive order forming the task force, Greitens said Missouri’s corrections system “wastes your money and it wastes people’s lives. We have to fix it.”
Fixing it will cost us, but the message is clear: We can take advantage of more effective options for less money now, or build an expanded prison system for more money later.