Empty Promises

Missouri has been pouring millions into prisons that aren't being used. But stay tuned: If politicians have their way, there will be plenty of inmates to go around.

Fifteen states reported decreases in their incarceration rates in 1999. Taken together, states reported an increase of less than 1 percent during that time. For the first time since 1972, the number of inmates in state prisons nationwide dropped by half a percentage point during the second half of 2000. Even Southern states, which have long led the nation in incarceration rates, have slowed down. In 1999, the incarceration rate in the South increased by just 0.4 percent. But not in Missouri, where the number of prisoners rose by 4.5 percent.

During ground-breaking ceremonies for Bonne Terre in August 1997, Carnahan said money for prisons is money well spent. "This is an important facility in our fight against crime," the governor said. "It's part of our efforts to put violent criminals behind bars and keep them there."

But lock-'em-up lawmakers have little to show for all the new cells. Most inmates in Missouri haven't been convicted of violent crimes. And incarceration rates make little difference in crime rates, which have been dropping since 1991. One of the best examples is Texas, which led the nation in prison construction during the 1990s and has 730 inmates per 100,000 residents. Although the crime rate has fallen in the Lone Star State, other states that haven't invested so much in prison construction have seen sharper declines. New York, for instance, saw a 43 percent decline in its crime rate between 1991 and 1998 while increasing its incarceration rate by 24 percent. During the same time, Texas increased its incarceration rate by 144 percent and realized a 35 percent drop in crime.

Jennifer Silverberg
There's plenty of room in Bonne Terre for Missouri's most dangerous criminals.
Jennifer Silverberg
There's plenty of room in Bonne Terre for Missouri's most dangerous criminals.

The same holds true in Missouri, where the state's incarceration rate increased by 50 percent between 1991 and 1998, 3 percentage points above the national average. At the same time, the crime rate decreased by 11 percent, four points below the average drop of 15 percent.

Statistics such as these, combined with skyrocketing prison budgets and a shrinking economy, have forced other states to reconsider prison policies. Several states, including Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, are closing prisons. Talk of reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders is no longer anathema. Voter-approved initiatives in Arizona and California have done what politicians wouldn't -- put non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison cells. Lawmakers are starting to get the message. In the state of Washington, the cash-strapped Legislature is considering repealing get-tough sentencing laws for drug offenders that were passed in the early 1990s.

So why is Missouri spending so much on new prisons with so little justification?

The simple answer is politics.

With an average sentence of seven years for a violent offense, Missouri is the toughest state in the nation when it comes to punishing dangerous felons. It's also tough on criminals who haven't hurt anyone.

More than half of the state's prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. "That's a pretty high percentage," says Chase Riveland, former director of the Washington Department of Corrections and now a prison consultant. "Legislators need to start looking at it as if they're investment bankers: Who is it we really want to spend the money on to keep them away from the community? If it's a person who's dangerous to other people, yeah, it's worth the investment. In the '80s and early '90s, incarceration was the solution for anything we saw awry in our society. We just put enormous numbers of people in, some of whom could have been dealt with differently and safely in the community. I would say, as an investment banker, we're making some poor investments."

By Riveland's standards, Missouri taxpayers have gotten screwed by politicians who pass draconian sentencing laws and judges who use them. In 1995, four of the 10 most common crimes resulting in prison time were violent offenses. The top 10 in 2000 included just two violent crimes, second-degree assault and second-degree robbery, which ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Drug possession -- which ranked third in 1995 -- was No. 1, followed by driving while intoxicated, delivery of a controlled substance, second-degree burglary, stealing and forgery. Vehicle tampering was ninth, and nonpayment of child support was No. 10. These 10 offenses accounted for nearly 70 percent of admissions to the state prison system, excluding inmates whose probation or parole was revoked.

Efforts to shorten sentences have failed. The state has sentencing guidelines that take into account an offender's prior criminal record, as well as aggravating or mitigating circumstances such as prior records and whether a weapon was used, but these guides are routinely ignored by judges. In 1999, corrections officials found that 47 percent of new inmates received sentences more severe that those recommended by the state Advisory Sentencing Commission. Had judges followed the voluntary guidelines, prison officials calculated, the state's prison population would have been reduced by 2,675 inmates, nearly the exact number of inmates Bonne Terre was designed to hold.

Besides get-tough judges, drugs are the biggest reason the state has built so many prisons. Slightly fewer than 30 percent of criminals sent to prison in 2000 were convicted of drug offenses. That includes 58 people who were imprisoned for selling 5 grams or less of marijuana -- less than a quarter-ounce. Those pot peddlers got at least one year and, under state law, could have received up to seven years (assuming these pushers each served one year and sold 4 grams, taxpayers spent nearly $760,000 to keep a half-pound of pot off the streets). The percentage of first-time drug offenders sent to prison is staggering. Forty-two percent of the 1,225 people incarcerated for possessing drugs in 2000 had no prior felony convictions. The average sentence for drug possession was nearly four-and-a-half years -- three months longer than it was five years earlier. The average dealer was sentenced to more than seven years, not only longer than five years earlier but three months longer than the average sentence for a violent criminal. Those sentences for drugs don't include inmates who are serving time under mandatory-minimum statutes, which require sentences of at least five or 10 years. In 2000, judges sent 59 drug offenders to prison for at least 10 years under mandatory-minimum laws. An additional 101 convicts started minimum five-year sentences that year.

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