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.

Carnahan claimed he vetoed the bill because it contained a provision that would have allowed nonviolent offenders to receive probation instead of prison time if they agreed to make donations to funds dedicated to law-enforcement purposes. The governor said he saw it as a case of the wealthy being allowed to buy their way out of prison, but that seems a flimsy excuse. Fines in lieu of prison were one of several alternatives that also included work release, community service, restitution for victims and drug treatment, and judges under Caskey's bill would have been able to impose any or all of those alternatives. In addition, judges had already been ordering the donations with no direct opposition from the governor. They stopped when the state Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline, a judicial disciplinary board, questioned its legality. Caskey says he added the provision to ensure that what was already common practice was allowed under state statute.

"You know why he said that he vetoed it," Caskey says now. "I'm sure that probably wasn't the real reason. I don't know what the real reason was." At the time, Carnahan was embarking on his U.S Senate bid against John Ashcroft, who surely would have jumped on any chance to tag his opponent as soft on crime. The specter of a Legislature controlled by Democrats overruling a Democratic governor may also have played a role. Before lawmakers took a shot at the crime-bill veto, they'd already overridden a Carnahan veto of a bill banning "partial-birth" abortion. Two vetoes in one session would have been unprecedented -- the Legislature has overridden vetoes just seven times in state history. And Republicans were already using the abortion override to attack Carnahan's leadership skills.

Regardless of partisan politics, the Senate voted to override the crime-bill veto. But the House balked. Caskey blames state Rep. Kelly Parker (D-Salem) for reneging on a promise to bring the override measure up for a vote. Parker, who had sponsored the original bill in the House, told the press he stayed silent because there weren't enough votes to overturn the governor's decision. That excuse didn't fly with Caskey, who branded House leaders "liars" and called Parker a "low-down, contemptible rat" during a speech on the Senate floor.

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 says he thinks the impending race against Ashcroft could have made a difference: "I would assume that was a factor that the governor looked at." Caskey has never again come so close. He introduced the same bill last year, but it went nowhere. He hasn't given up. He has no sympathy for violent felons, but there are too many criminals serving time in Missouri at too high a cost.

"We need to make certain that those that need to be in the penitentiary are in the penitentiary and that there are beds for them," he says. "Those that can benefit from treatment and intensive probation-and-parole supervision, we should try that first. We want to have an intelligent approach to incarceration."

Back in Bonne Terre, Sue Wilke remembers the day she helped break ground on the still-vacant prison.

"We were out there with Gov. Carnahan and we got our little shovels and hard hats, and it's been downhill ever since," the mayor says. "It seems like if there's any money -- any money at all -- to put into corrections, it should certainly go toward opening the state-of-the-art prison that they've built. We're hanging on by our fingernails."

Inevitably the prison will open. It's just a question of when. "I can't imagine -- I can't imagine -- the state walking away from a commitment like that," the mayor says. Beyond that, the future is uncertain.

The acting superintendent of the empty prison doesn't know what will happen. Maybe Missouri, like other states, will be closing prisons within the next few years. Then again, inmate numbers could keep rising -- maybe the state will have to choose between building even more prisons or returning to the days when prisoners were shoehorned into every available cranny. Or lawmakers could reform sentencing laws and guarantee a reduction in inmates.

"I don't have to make those decisions," Jim Purkett says.

He looks relieved.

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