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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.

Locals say the lights always burn at Missouri's largest prison, a sprawling 210-acre complex on the outskirts of Bonne Terre. Scores of orange bulbs, mounted on tall poles, fire up the winter sky and can be seen for miles.

With enough power to turn night into day, the lights make the new Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center as obvious a landmark as the towering 32-acre mound of lead-mine tailings left behind by the St. Joe lead company. The 2 million-ton dirt heap and a huge underground cavity are the old lead company's legacy to Bonne Terre. Today the abandoned mine, dubbed Billion Gallon Lake, is the world's largest freshwater diving resort, attracting notice from scuba magazines and National Geographic.

Resort or no, Bonne Terre is far from a vacation playland. The town can't afford a new pump for an artificial lake that went dry this winter -- nature lovers had to stare at a muddy hole for weeks until rain filled it. The public schools are the biggest employer. There's a cluster of fast-food restaurants, gas stations and video stores at the highway interchange, but several downtown storefronts are boarded up. Bonne Terre officials thought they'd found the solution to the town's money problems when the state decided to build a $168 million penitentiary that would bring more than 800 jobs. Then there'd be plenty of money for paving potholes and sprucing up the park, they figured.

They figured wrong.

Six months after construction was completed, the prison in Bonne Terre sits empty, a sobering lesson on the fiscal consequences of prison construction that has cost Missouri taxpayers nearly a half-billion dollars since 1994. During the past dozen years, the state's corrections budget has more than doubled, benefiting concrete-pouring contractors and politicians such as the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, who led the push for new prisons while billing himself as a crime-fighter. With the prison-building spree near an end, the state now says it doesn't have enough money to open the Bonne Terre lockup, designed to house the state's most dangerous inmates.

Bonne Terre Mayor Sue Wilke walks right up to the fence. With the prison empty, security is the least of the state's concerns. Air ducts snake through the site, part of an HVAC system that will one day keep inmates comfortable, if not happy -- the gleaming metal pipes, built above ground for easy maintenance, are among the more striking features of the prison viewed from outside. Wilke chats for five minutes or so before a guard buzzes over in an electric cart and politely asks her to back off. He disappears before she finishes walking back to her car.

"I've thought about calling Bruce Willis," Wilke cracks. "This would make a great movie set." All these lights on in the middle of the day is also good from the mayor's standpoint -- at least the town will collect some utility taxes. As far as she's concerned, the state's money woes are minuscule compared with the financial crisis in her town.

Bonne Terre spent heavily to land the 2,700-bed prison. Besides buying the site and deeding it to the state, the town borrowed to extend sewer, water and electricity to the prison. It seemed like a can't-lose deal. Revenue from state gas taxes alone, which is distributed on the basis of population, would swell local coffers by $90,000 a year because the town would include inmates in census counts. But there has been no economic bonanza. With 3,800 residents and an annual budget of about $1.5 million, the town has frozen hiring and increased water and sewer rates by 18 percent to make ends meet. A sales-tax hike is on the ballot to pay for road repairs. "I've never seen a small town with so much debt," says city manager Larry Hughes.

It's little wonder that Gov. Bob Holden's vow to open the prison won the most tepid of applause during his "State of the State" speech to lawmakers in January. The law-and-order Legislature of the 1990s is now facing bills that won't go away anytime soon. Too timid to risk being tagged as soft on crime, legislators have balked at doing anything about an escalating prison population swelled by nonviolent criminals who are a bigger drain on the state's pocketbook than a risk to law-abiding citizens on the streets.

Even before the economy worsened, the state couldn't come up with the cash to bring convicts to Bonne Terre. State Sen. Danny Staples (D-Eminence) says corrections officials told him during last year's session that the prison wouldn't open on schedule. The lease alone on the empty facility is costing taxpayers $8.4 million a year. Equipping the penitentiary with furniture, office equipment, firearms and other tools of the prison trade will cost nearly $14 million. Then taxpayers will spend $45 million a year running the place. At the earliest, cellblocks will open some time next year, if the Legislature approves Holden's proposed budget that contains $30 million in operating money for the prison, enough to support three-quarters of the inmates it was designed to hold.

"When we started construction, Missouri was blessed with revenue," says Staples, whose district includes Bonne Terre. "We were sending rebate checks back to taxpayers. We just had so much money we didn't know what to do with it. All of a sudden, hard times hit."

The Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center isn't the only prison in Missouri with plenty of room. The state also has had trouble coming up with money to open a $72 million prison in Charleston that was completed last summer. That lockup, which will cost $18 million a year to operate, accepted its first prisoners last fall. With room for 1,600 inmates, it houses fewer than 600. The governor, who has allocated $13.3 million for the Charleston prison this year, plans to open it gradually. Despite empty cellblocks in Charleston and Bonne Terre, the state has broken ground on yet another prison in the state capital. The new penitentiary, which is scheduled for completion next year, won't increase the number of state prison beds. Rather, the $136 million facility will replace the Central Missouri Correctional Center, a crumbling 19th-century relic in Jefferson City.

The 2,000-bed pen under construction in Jeff City irks Wilke and Staples. Why is the state building another prison when it can't afford to open the one in Bonne Terre? Why doesn't the state close the old Jeff City pen and just transfer inmates to the new, completed prison? Sen. Staples blames pork politics: "When I've got a prison in my district and other people have a prison in their district, they don't want to close that prison because of the economic conditions it would create in Cole County."

Corrections officials say it's a matter of efficiency and a never-ending stream of inmates. It makes little sense to transfer inmates from Jeff City to Bonne Terre for just one year. Seasoned staff would be lost, and Jeff City prison factories that produce furniture, floor wax and other goods would be disrupted because Bonne Terre isn't designed to accommodate that work. They dismiss any notion that the state could close Jeff City and not replace the aging pen.

For them, prison construction in Missouri is an automatic case of "if you build it, they will come." By 2004, corrections officials predict, the state will run out of cells.

Not everybody believes it.

Take Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist. Rosenfeld is convinced the state has gone overboard. "Absolutely," he says. "Barring policy changes that I just don't see on the horizon, what will happen in Missouri is what we're beginning to see in many other places, and that is smaller and smaller growth rates and then, finally, a flattening. I would think that by 2004 they'll be flat."

During the second half of 2000, the number of inmates confined in state prisons nationwide dropped by half a percentage point, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was the first decline in the prison population since 1972. In Missouri, the numbers are rising, but not nearly so fast as in the early and mid-1990s, when annual percentage increases reached double digits. Prison growth peaked in 1995, when the number of inmates increased by 15 percent in one year. Since 1997, annual growth has been less than 5 percent. The numbers work out to 3.3 new inmates per day over the past three years. When work started on Bonne Terre, the state was welcoming eight new inmates per day.

An end may be in sight. With crime rates falling since the early 1990s, inmates sent to prison for parole or probation violations are fueling the growth -- in 2000, 59 percent of all prison admissions were the result of parole or probation revocations. In most cases, parole or probation is revoked for technical violations, such as failing a drug test, as opposed to new crimes. Inevitably, Rosenfeld says, the numbers of probation and parole violators will decrease as sentences run their courses. Banking on repeat offenders to fill new prisons isn't a wise bet in Missouri, which, at 19.2 percent, has the sixth-lowest recidivism rate in the nation.

Corrections officials have been wrong before. In 1997, the state predicted it would house 33,000 inmates by 2001. Forecasters were wrong by 5,000 inmates -- the population today is slightly less than 30,000. The state each year appropriates tens of millions of dollars for corrections that is never spent. In fiscal year 2001, which ended on June 30, the state spent $455 million on corrections, $45 million less than what was approved by the Legislature and governor. The same was true 10 years earlier, when the state spent $182.7 million, nearly $20 million below the appropriated amount. Although departments, especially large ones, typically don't spend their entire appropriations, corrections presents unique challenges to state budgeters. "We had a lot of uncertainty then about what was happening with the population," says Katherine Connor, section manager for the state Office of Administration. "We had had such huge increases for a while. About the time we thought we had it under control and knew what we were doing, we'd hit another spike. Our crystal ball wasn't very good."

Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest blames high employee turnover for much of the unspent money. The state hasn't been able to quickly fill openings, and so money budgeted for payroll hasn't been spent, he says. Despite the understaffing, the state's prisons seem to be getting along just fine, even with Bonne Terre empty and more than 1,000 vacant beds at Charleston. On a per capita basis, assaults on staff have gone down during the past few years. Inmates are relatively satisfied with their living conditions -- Missouri had the fourth-lowest number of prisoner lawsuits filed in the nation in 2000 on a per capita basis. Just two of the state's prisons are operating under federal consent decrees capping inmate numbers; six institutions had such caps when the building boom began. Corrections officials say they haven't had difficulty complying with existing caps. "I don't think we've had any court orders about population in a number of years," Kniest says.

Missouri's prisons aren't crowded compared with those in other states. The federal government reports that 96 percent of the state's prison beds were occupied in 2000, and that doesn't include Bonne Terre or Charleston. In contrast, 21 states reported prison populations in excess of 100 percent of capacity. Illinois is operating at more than 130 percent of capacity but nevertheless plans to close at least one prison to save money. Ohio and Michigan are also closing prisons, even though their prisons are more crowded than Missouri penitentiaries, according to federal statistics. In California, which houses nearly twice as many inmates as prisons were designed to hold, five private lockups are due to be shut down because the state, thanks to a decline in inmates, no longer needs the space.

Prison administrators have lowered crowding statistics by converting dayrooms, gyms and other areas into housing units. Missouri prison officials say they have 1,768 empty beds, not counting Bonne Terre -- the bulk of the empty space is at Charleston. The state figures its prisons are running at 125 percent of design capacity. When the building spree began, prisons were operating at more than 160 percent of capacity. "If you look at operational capacity, we have more beds than inmates," Kniest acknowledges, "but you have to look at the other side of that. The situation is, how crowded is crowded? If your institution is overpopulated and you have to take other areas to make housing units, that reduces your program space."

Legislators who approve money for new prisons and the bureaucrats who run them are betting that Missouri will buck the national trend and fill Bonne Terre -- and then some. Just last year, corrections officials in their annual budget request said a new $97 million medium-security prison will be needed by 2005. Staples doesn't see an end to the crescendoing numbers. The reasoning is nothing short of depressing.

"I've been here long enough to know that when the economy goes sour and people aren't working, the crime rate goes up," he says. "By the time we get it [Bonne Terre] fully funded and get it open, it's going to be full. That's going to be 831 employees for St. Francois County and Jefferson and surrounding counties. It's going to be a boon for the economy in Bonne Terre." But counting on a prolonged recession to fill a prison is a double-edged sword. If Staples is right, the state will be saddled with thousands of new inmates when it can least afford to house them.

Built on solid rock, the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center will be both the beginning and end of the line for some of the state's most dangerous convicts, the place where all new inmates from eastern Missouri will go for assessment and the place where those deemed the highest security threat may be permanently assigned.

"There's no way you can tunnel out of here without heavy machinery," says Jim Purkett, acting superintendent. "It took several million dollars just for excavation work." For now, the perimeter death fence, high-voltage and designed to kill instantly, is turned off. Inside, beeps subtler than a cell phone but no less annoying permeate housing units, the dining hall, classrooms and infirmary that will one day be filled with the state's highest-risk inmates. "It's the fire alarm," Purkett explains. "It drives you crazy after a while."

With no flammables or inmates inside the concrete and steel, there's no rush to fix the alarm. The camera system works, however, and correctional officers in the central control room watch and sometimes open a door by remote control when a sergeant can't figure out a lock.

Cigarette butts litter the kitchen floor. Floors, walls and doors everywhere are either white or gray. Demands for bread-and-water-only dungeons from political conservatives a decade ago have dimmed as Missouri has perfected the art of prison- building. The chapel smells of fresh carpet, and plastic dust covers are draped over the infirmary's x-ray equipment and three dental chairs. Several of the infirmary rooms are specially sealed with separate ventilation systems to accommodate tuberculosis cases, and two are fully padded and equipped with special observation cameras. There are 14 private sickrooms here, plus two wards, reflecting the need to segregate inmates who are either dangerous or vulnerable. Infirmary rooms are equipped with cable-television outlets, as are cells in the housing units. There is space for weightlifting machines in the gymnasium.

The prison school includes 10 classrooms, plus a teachers' lounge. Inmates, who aren't eligible for parole unless they have a high-school diploma or G.E.D., will typically work three hours a day and spend another three hours in classes. The gym is suitable for a concert -- with sound-muffling material on its ceiling, it's far less echoey than the two-tiered housing units, where bare concrete and metal roofs amplify the tiniest sound, especially with nothing inside to absorb noise. Purkett ticks off the list of furnishing and supplies he needs: Bunks, lockers, mattresses, blankets, sheets, clothing, shoes, boots, chairs, bookcases, credenzas, cleaning supplies, wax -- all will be made by inmates at other institutions.

Just outside the fence stands a food-preparation unit that will supply 30,000 meals a day to five prisons in western Missouri. It's substantially larger than a football field -- one walk-in cooler alone has more than enough space for a full-court basketball game. There are three stainless-steel pots with room for 900 gallons of chili, gravy or spaghetti sauce that, once cooked, will be pumped through hoses into converted commercial-size laundry washers that will chill it in a matter of minutes so it can go into a cooler. This is the same gear used to supply all-you-can-eat buffets in Las Vegas casinos, says Purkett, who knows how it all functions, down to the smallest detail. "I just needed to know," he says. "I had no clue how it worked. It baffled my mind to think about it, so I found out."

Purkett knows this place as well as he knows his own house. Dozens of bare rooms contained in 20 buildings soon start to look the same, but Purkett can tell you which ones will be barbershops, which will be counselors' offices and which will be classrooms. He no longer has to look for the brand-new water tower just outside the perimeter to find his bearings. Purkett visited frequently during construction but still had trouble finding his way around when it was finished. "It took a while," he says. "I had to have a map."

A 27-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Corrections, Purkett hopes to retire as superintendent of this place. It's a far cry from the Jefferson City penitentiary where he started his career as a parole officer. With 75 acres inside the perimeter fence and more than twice that surrounding the new prison, there's lots of space. The death fence and electronic surveillance systems are more sophisticated than gun-toting guards in towers. "I think, psychologically, it's more relaxed," Purkett says. "This is the way we build them these days. It's done with technology instead of brick and mortar. We keep growing. It's nice to have new places like this."

Ten years ago, Purkett's biggest challenge was finding beds for inmates. That's changed. The state plans to transfer 50 minimum-security prisoners from Farmington to Bonne Terre in May to help get the prison ready for occupancy but won't fill the beds they leave. "We're a little under capacity," explains Purkett, who is also superintendent at the state prison in Farmington. "We're just going to leave them empty." Purkett has also seen a change in clientele during his career. "I'd say they've probably changed," he says. "They're not so violent. Maybe we're doing our job better. I think we're better at preventing violence."

Or maybe Missouri is spending too much money on prisons that aren't really needed.

More than half the inmates confined in state prisons aren't guilty of violent offenses. Other states with more crowded penitentiaries are closing prisons. Legislators elsewhere are considering retreat from three-strikes laws, long sentences for drug offenders and mandatory minimum sentences that have driven up costs. Voters in Arizona and California have approved initiatives that require treatment instead of prison for drug users. Yet Missouri continues on.

The seeds of the Bonne Terre fiasco were sown in the early 1990s, when Missouri embarked on its mammoth prison-expansion program. Bonne Terre is the crown jewel, the largest facility in the state.

Since 1994, the state has built eight new prisons, adding 13,000 beds to the system. Missouri's inmate population nearly doubled during the 1990s, and the dollars spent to house criminals have mushroomed at an even faster rate, thanks to new construction. In 1990, the state spent less than $200 million a year on corrections; Holden wants to spend $571 million in fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1. Corrections also is taking a larger bite of total state spending -- up from 4.32 percent of the general fund in fiscal year 1991 to 5.57 percent in fiscal year 2001.

Eight years ago, when Holden's predecessor launched the spending spree, few questioned the need for more prison beds. State prisons were at 160 percent of capacity, and the state's new truth-in-sentencing law requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences promised to exacerbate the problem. Initial experience proved the predictions true. The state couldn't build prisons fast enough. By 1995, the corrections department was housing hundreds of inmates in tents. Hundreds more were sent to private prisons in Texas, a policy that proved disastrous in 1997, when a videotape surfaced showing guards brutalizing Missouri prisoners with attack dogs and electric prods. The tape prompted Missouri to immediately bring its inmates home, where their sheer numbers have made them a headache ever since. That same year, the state broke ground at Bonne Terre, and Carnahan successfully lobbied the Legislature for $146 million to build prisons at Charleston and Licking.

The governor said he hated to do it but that surging numbers of inmates left him no choice. "It's critical," Chris Sifford (a spokesman for the governor who died in a plane crash with his boss), told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the 1997 legislative session, when some legislators pondered approving money for one new prison instead of the two requested by Carnahan. "We have to do it." Dora Schriro, then corrections director, warned in making the case for Carnahan's request. The state, she noted, was gaining eight new inmates per day -- the inmate population that year increased by more than 9 percent, according to the Justice Department. "We have no idea that the rate is going to abate," Schriro told the newspaper.

The rate plummeted long before Bonne Terre was ready for occupancy. In 1998, the annual prison population increase stood at 4.1 percent, and it's been below 5 percent every year since. Still, that's a phenomenal number of prisoners.

Missouri has the highest incarceration rate in the Midwest, according to the Justice Department. In 2000, Missouri had 494 inmates for every 100,000 residents. The Midwest average is 371 inmates per 100,000 residents; the national average is 432. Outside the South, Missouri has the nation's third-highest incarceration rate. Even as Missouri's inmate numbers continue rising, the rest of the country is starting to move in the other direction.

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.

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.

Mandatory minimums typically depend on the quantity of drugs. The threshold ranges from 500 milligrams in the case of LSD to 30 kilograms for marijuana. Penalties for cocaine are particularly out of whack. Mandatory minimums for cocaine don't kick in until more than 150 grams is involved -- unless it's crack. Then the punishment ratchets up to a minimum of five years if a person is found with more than 2 grams. Mandatory minimums for crack dealers start at 10 years for someone caught selling more than 2 grams -- barely one-sixteenth of an ounce. If a dealer has more than 6 grams, he must serve a decade in prison without possibility of probation or parole.

Where drugs are sold also makes a difference. Sales of any drug within 2,000 feet of a school, university or public housing project carry a mandatory 10-year sentence. Some laws passed within the last few years are nothing less than bizarre. A person who sells 30 grams -- slightly more than 1 ounce -- of methamphetamine or ecstasy in a casino, grocery store, church or practically anyplace else faces a minimum 10-year sentence but can be paroled. If that same quantity is sold from a car or motel room, there's no chance for early release. The standard doesn't apply to heroin, cocaine or any other drug -- those dealers may conduct business from automobiles or hotels without any additional penalties.

To their credit, some judges are reluctant to throw away the key when it comes to drug felonies that carry penalties of 10 years to life. Inmates sentenced under those statutes in 1999 got breaks more often than not -- 27 percent of the sentences fell below state guidelines that year; 19 percent were in excess of guidelines. But leniency dissolves with less serious drug offenses. In 1999, the corrections department found that 37 percent of drug felons who were facing five to 15 years received sentences longer than those prescribed by state guidelines; just 8 percent were shorter than those indicated in the guidelines. Fifty-five percent of drug offenders guilty of crimes with a maximum seven-year sentence but no minimum received above-guideline sentences; 4 percent got a break. And 64 percent of those facing a maximum penalty of five years got sentences in excess of guidelines; only 5 percent got breaks.

Politicians elsewhere realize that such stiff sentences are a waste of money. Republican governors in New York and New Mexico have called for treatment instead of prison for drug crimes, especially for first offenders. The Democratic governor of Washington, with support from the Republican prosecutor of the state's most populous county, is proposing treatment in lieu of incarceration and shorter sentences for drug offenders who are sent to prison. "I think you've seen some pretty interesting people back away from it," says Riveland. "You may start seeing conservatives and liberals -- I don't like those titles -- those two camps coming together for different reasons. The liberals will come in because they think it's more humane and more effective to treat people in the community. The conservatives will come in because they recognize they don't want to spend the money to lock these people down. Hopefully that will result, in many jurisdictions, in fairly sound public policy."

In Missouri, lawmakers five years ago approved legislation that provided funding for drug courts and money to put more offenders on probation instead of sending them to prison. The $7 million allocated for prison alternatives was minuscule compared with the more than $150 million appropriated that year for new prisons and expansion projects at existing facilities. Some prosecutors, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, have been slow to set up effective drug courts, and some of the money has gone unused [Rushton, "What About Bob?" March 29, 2000]. Although the state has increased funds for prison alternatives, spending about $15 million in 2000, the Legislature hasn't provided enough money to set up alternatives throughout the state. Just 24 counties have received money for alternative programs begun five years ago, despite evidence that punishment short of prison saves taxpayers plenty. Between fiscal year 1997 and fiscal year 2000, prison admissions from counties that received the state money went down by 2.2 percent. Admissions from counties that didn't get the state help increased by 10.6 percent. Corrections officials figure the programs have kept 729 criminals out of prison at an annual savings of $3.7 million.

Some lawmakers would like to go further. Staples has sponsored legislation modeled after California's voter-approved initiative that mandates drug treatment instead of prison. "Instead of building a $75 million prison, I'd like to build a $75 million hospital for substance abusers and turn those beds over three times a year and treat those people instead of warehousing them," Staples says. "If an 18- to 22-year-old kid gets caught the first time, we give him 60 to 90 days in a rehabilitation center so he can be educated on drugs. That person wouldn't have a felony rap. He wouldn't have a prison sentence and he might be president of the United States someday. But right now, all he can do is wash dishes or mix concrete." Staples isn't afraid of what his constituents might think. "They tend to agree with me," he says. "I hear from a lot of people out there who tell me we don't need to build any more prisons and we don't need to build any more baseball stadiums."

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.

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.

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.

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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