By Rudi Keller
In Missouri, a person becomes an adult eligible to drink at age 21, vote at 18 and commit a crime at 17.
That law, combined with very low thresholds for felony charges for drug crimes, can mean a lifetime of lower wages, fewer opportunities and a greater chance of re-offending, attorney Jennifer Bukowsky said Tuesday during a forum on prison costs.
“It is illegal for a felon to sell a lottery ticket or alcohol in Missouri,” she said. “That means my indigent clients, their only options are fast food or construction.”
The Show-Me Institute sponsored the 90-minute discussion called “Behind Bars in Missouri — Who is Paying the Price?” held on the Columbia College campus. Along with Bukowsky, who handles numerous criminal defense cases, the panel included University of Missouri economist Aaron Hedlund, Columbia Police Department legal adviser Nicole Volkert, Columbia College professor of criminal justice administration Barry Langford and state Treasurer Eric Schmitt.
From the 1970s through 2000, Missouri had the fastest growing prison population in the nation and currently houses more than 32,000 felony offenders. The state has the eighth highest incarceration rate in the nation and in recent years has led the nation in the growth rate for women inmates.
Prison has several purposes, Langford said, from restraining people who have violated the law and creating an opportunity to reform them into productive citizens to deterring others from committing similar acts. To achieve those purposes, since the 1980s states and the federal government have enacted harsher sentencing laws, imposed post-conviction restrictions and increased the percentage of offenders being sent to prison.
Studies have found, however, that the length of sentences are less of a deterrent to crime than the likelihood of being caught, Langford said.
“Many people argue we are now restraining too many people for too long a time for the wrong things at the expense of more important priorities like health care, roads and education,” he said.
The issues discussed Tuesday are similar to those being explored by the Missouri State Justice Reinvestment Taskforce, created in July by Gov. Eric Greitens to examine the way criminal laws are enforced. The task force is supposed to make its report by Dec. 31.
Patrick Touhey, director of municipal policy for the institute, said the forum was an attempt to grapple with an issue.
The institute hasn’t taken a stand on any particular reforms, he said. The principles that will guide the institute will be how the system impairs individual liberty and the cost to society of doing nothing.
“It not only is the individual loss to you but to your children as well,” he said.
The way cases are handled, and the cost of being caught up in the court system, are highly decentralized, Volkert said. Decisions on how to prosecute a crime are made differently in 114 counties and St. Louis, all of which have an independently elected prosecuting attorney. There are 22,000 officers on the streets in hundreds of jurisdictions, large and small, all following locally created policies.
No one knows what it costs to prosecute a criminal case because it includes the personnel costs for officers, prosecutors, court personnel and often the defense attorney as well as the equipment and building cots for the courtrooms, jails and prisons, Volkert said.
And for minor offenses, the U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson maps out how small things such as a busted tail light can grow into an impossible maze of new charges, fees and fines, she said.
“It was a constantly never-ending stream of paying for things,” Volkert said.
Schmitt, formerly a state senator, sponsored legislation to prevent municipal courts from using minor violations as a source of revenue. The municipal courts of St. Louis County were out of control, he said.
“Government doesn’t exist to find new and innovative ways to extract more and more,” Schmitt said.