COLUMBIA – Warren Brewer, the Boone County Sheriff's Department jail administrator, said it's "like Christmas."
The Boone County Jail inmate population is significantly lower than in 2008, marking a downturn in a seesaw pattern of inmate housing rates over the past 14 years.
"I think we have to look at a combination of factors, including alternative sentencing and willingness of all participants to work together and still maintain safety," Brewer said about the reason for the decline.
But he's happy about it nonetheless because a lower jail population means fewer financial worries, successful incarceration alternatives and a lighter burden on jail administration and staff.
The problem of inmate overcrowding has plagued Boone County for decades. The current jail, built in 1991, was built for 134 inmates but now contains 210 beds. The idea of building a new jail has come up repeatedly but was a particularly hot topic in 1998 when the county spent more than $650,000 — the highest amount in more than a decade — to house inmates in other counties' jails.
In recent months, the number of inmates in the jail has remained around or below 180. In 2008, the average daily inmate population was 224. That number has been as low as 165 in 1996 and as high as 228 in 2004, according to Sheriff's Department statistics.
Brewer and Boone County Circuit Court Judge Christine Carpenter cite the cooperation between participants in Boone County's justice system as contributing to the reduction in jail overcrowding. About five years ago, Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gene Hamilton initiated a monthly meeting between judges, parole officers, prosecution, defense, the Sheriff's office and the Columbia Police Department. They meet to troubleshoot problems and resolve issues in the county's justice system.
"Sometimes we don't agree, but we work through honest discussion," Brewer said. "Everyone recognizes there isn't just one solution to a problem."
Carpenter said a trio of alternative sentencing programs over which she presides have also been a "catalyst" for the decrease in the jail population.
One of them — the Drug Court, founded in 1998 — is an alternative to incarceration for felony offenders with substance abuse issues. The Mental Health Court was established in 2003 to help misdemeanor or felony offenders with serious mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
The third — the Reintegration Court — aims to help Boone County inmates transition back to society after their 120-day "shock" incarceration in a Missouri prison. The program, created in July 2007, is a three-year pilot program also being tested in Jackson and St. Charles counties.
Carpenter said the alternative sentencing programs are focused on solutions rather than incarceration. All three programs prohibit participants from using drugs and alcohol and do drug testing at a minimum of twice weekly. Carpenter, parole officers, and counselors meet frequently to discuss participants' progress.
Carpenter said this constant communication allows for an immediate response to problems. The intensive focus on substance abuse works to address the underlying issue of many crimes, Carpenter said. She estimated that 50 percent to 60 percent of Drug Court participants successfully complete the program. About 10 percent of graduates have new criminal cases at a later date.
"We're hacking away at a giant mountain with a teaspoon, but sooner or later it will pay off," Carpenter said.
Home detention and work-release programs have also contributed to the decline in the inmate population, officials said.
"We've been creative in trying to stop the jail's revolving door," said Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin.
Elkin said fewer inmates to house and feed also means less taxpayer money spent on the jail. The jail population must be segregated according to a variety of factors, including gender, past history of violence and health. As the jail nears capacity, more inmates must be housed outside of Boone County to maintain order within the jail, he said.
Brewer estimates the cost of housing one inmate is $60 to $70 per day. He said housing inmates out of the county costs less than housing inmates in the county because of the lack of overhead costs, but those inmates are typically "the cream of the crop" – nonviolent offenders with no mental health issues.
Carpenter said the cost of the alternative sentencing program, which receives both state and county funding, is about $20 per participant, per day.
The number of arrests and court fillings remained unchanged, Brewer said. Columbia's violent crime rate declined in 2008, while property crimes increased 18 percent. But census data shows that Boone County's population increased 13 percent from 2000 to 2008, from nearly 136,000 residents to more than 154,000 residents.
Missouri's prisons, which house inmates convicted of felony crimes, saw a 0.7 percent decreases in inmates between December 2006 and June 2007. Missouri was one of eight states nationwide that experienced a decline in prison population. This decline followed a 1.5 percent increase between 2000 and 2006, according to Department of Justice statistics. Missouri's population increased 5.6 percent between 2000 and 2008.