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.

Staples' proposal didn't make it out of committee during last year's session.

State Sen. Harold Caskey (D-Butler) put his political butt on the line three years ago. Despite being up for re-election the next year, Caskey sponsored a 1999 bill aimed at cutting the state's inmate population by reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders, particularly those convicted of drug offenses. It wasn't a shoot-from-the hip approach.

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.

Caskey is an outstate legislator and former prosecutor who has earned a tough-on-crime reputation during 27 years in the Legislature, favoring right-to-carry gun laws and the death penalty for criminals who kill in the course of drug trafficking. He once sponsored a bill that would have made possession of small amounts of marijuana a felony for second-time offenders. He has opposed moves to allow parole for murderers sentenced to life. In January, he showed his conservative mettle in questioning a lawyer who testified in support of a bill that would bar the state from executing murderers who killed before they were 18. "He killed her?" Caskey asked the attorney, who represents a death-row inmate who committed murder at age 17. "Yes," the lawyer answered. "She's still dead?" Caskey asked. Again the answer was yes. The senator had no further questions.

With such a record, Caskey is the perfect point man to combat escalating prison costs. He was sent into battle two years ago, when Staples and other senior senators asked him to sponsor legislation that was certain to draw plenty of potshots.

Before the session began, Caskey's office produced a report documenting Missouri's prison growth and suggesting ways to address it. As Caskey sees it, the state already knows how to safely reduce the prison population and cut expenses through programs such as drug court and intensive probation. The challenge is convincing legislators to expand funding for those programs and restore common sense to sentencing laws. He's sent an updated copy of his report to the governor's office but so far has found little interest. "At a time when we are engaged in a major budget crisis, I think that people might want to look at it," he says. Like his predecessor, Gov. Holden likes new prisons. "Our projections indicate that the inmate population in Missouri will continue to grow over the next few years," he said at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the Charleston prison in September. "With this new facility, Missourians can have every confidence that our state has space to ensure that sentences are served and that our communities are safe."

Caskey's bill would remove mandatory minimums for repeat drug offenders -- judges who meted out shorter terms in those cases would have ordered crime-related assets seized and required the offender to receive drug treatment while in prison and after release. Furthermore, judges who deviated from sentencing guidelines in any drug case would have to explain their reasons in writing. Otherwise, the parole board could release inmates early if their sentences were in excess of guidelines. In essence, get-tough judges could have their cake and leave corrections officials who signed release papers to be the fall guys.

Caskey faced considerable opposition from county prosecutors and such prominent state politicians as Attorney General Jay Nixon, who summoned leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to a press conference, where he called Caskey's proposal "stunningly weak" on crime. Whether that was true is debatable -- McCulloch, notorious for being tough on crime, saw nothing to oppose. Before legislators took a final vote, McCulloch, who personally lobbied lawmakers, declared victory. "This bill won't change the number of people in prison," he crowed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The bill would do nothing. That's why we had no objection to it."

To be sure, the bill amounted to baby steps. Left in place were provisions mandating five and 10-year drug sentences based on quantity -- a nickel-and-dime crack dealer could still do 10 years with no chance for parole. Still, Caskey believes his bill would have cut the number of inmates entering prison by 3,500 each year through provisions encouraging judges to follow sentencing guidelines and consider probation, drug court, community service, work release or other alternatives to prison. "Basically it's the first-time offender who's in possession of drugs," he says. That isn't exactly true. The bill would also have given breaks to repeat offenders. Instead of extra prison time on a third felony conviction, criminals of all stripes wouldn't face stepped-up sentences until their fourth felonies, including at least one that sent them to prison.

By the time the bill worked its way through the legislative sausage factory, lawmakers had tacked on all sorts of extras, ranging from requirements that cabaret dancers to be at least 21 to regulations putting brakes on unscrupulous telemarketers. Some amendments, such as one establishing the new crime of leaving a shooting scene without notifying law enforcement, would actually have worked against the bill's goal of reducing prison overpopulation. "Really, if you want to defeat a criminal-law package in the Missouri Legislature, you add to it, you don't take away," Caskey says. "You add so much that it dies of its own weight."

But not this time. Lawmakers passed Caskey's bill. Then Gov. Carnahan vetoed it, and the politics started all over again.

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