Prison Reform Would Save Missouri Taxpayers Millions, Bipartisan Report Says

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Is prison reform in Missouri's future?
Is prison reform in Missouri's future?
Since 1990, Missouri's spending on inmates has tripled to more than $660 million, and the state's prison population has doubled. While the state's overall general fund has grown by 14 percent over the last decade, the Department of Corrections' budget has grown by 39 percent.

For all the spending, the state hasn't seen much return on its investment. Between 1999 and 2009, violent crime in America dropped 18 percent while the nation's imprisonment rate increased by two percent. Over that same period, though, Missouri's violent crime rate dropped by just two percent and its imprisonment rate rose by seven percent.

Those stats come courtesy of a new report from the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections, a bipartisan, fifteen-member committee made up of appointments from all three branches of government and co-chaired by state Sen. Jack Goodman (R) and state Rep. Chris Kelly (D). The report concludes that reforming the state's probation and parole policies, shifting more drug offenders toward rehabilitation, and reducing the state's highest-in-the-nation sentencing disparity for crack cocaine would allow the Department of Corrections to focus more on serious offenders and save Missouri tax-payers millions of dollars.

A good-size chunk of the state's incarceration rate increase, the report found, stemmed from probation and parole violations. Currently, these revocations account for 71 percent of prison admissions, which is a 16 percent increase since 1990. Around 40 percent of inmates released from prison return within two years. Nearly two-thirds of parole and probation revocations, though, come from non-violent violations, including drug offenses.

"Of the prison admissions for drug possession between 2000 and 2010, 81 percent resulted from a revocation," the report stated. "Put another way, a significant number of the inmates convicted of a drug offense entered prison not because of the seriousness of the underlying offense but because they violated the rules of community supervision."

Accordingly, the report recommends alternatives to the straight-to-prison model. Those suggestions include: incentivizing good behavior by reducing the term of supervision by 30 days for every 30 days of compliance; using short, one- or two-day stints in jail as punishment for certain violations; requiring drug treatment programs for first-time violators who catch a drug charge.

Reforming the "War on Drugs," of course, ties into any discussion of prison reform. In Missouri, one out of every five inmates is serving time for a drug offense, which is just about the national average among state prisoners. While the federal government last year reduced its crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from a 100-1 ratio to an 18-1 ratio, Missouri's remains at 75-1, which is the highest in the nation (the next closest is New Hampshire's 28-1 ratio). This means a person in Missouri caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine receives the same penalty as a person in Missouri caught with 375 grams of powder cocaine. The report recommends that this disparity be reduced.

With belts tightening in statehouses across the nation, prison reform has gained more and more support from people other than sociology professors and New York Times editorial board members. This tide was perhaps most famously seen in Indiana Republican governor Mitch Daniels' widely popular but still-stalled effort to enact sweeping changes in his state's corrections policies earlier this year.

Missouri Working Group estimates that its prison reform package would reduce the state's prison population by 245 to 677 inmates within six years and reduce costs by $7.7 million to $16.6 million.

For more on St. Louis politics, boxing, hip-hop and miscellaneous social issues, follow @albertsamaha on Twitter.

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