JEFFERSON CITY — An all-time high number of inmates in Missouri prisons has officials searching for the reasons.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said three factors are probably leading to the prison population growth: more crimes being committed, more stringent sentencing and, in some areas such as St. Louis, an attempt to push cases through the courts more quickly.
The high of 30,720 inmates has dropped off by about a dozen since originally announced at the end of September by the Corrections Department. Corrections officials said the number does not worry the department. No matter what, officials said, they are more than ready to handle the large number of prisoners.
One Missouri legislator disagreed, however, with the department's statement that the high number is "not a problem."
Rep. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said Missouri prisons have "severe overcrowding" that creates many problems, such as safety concerns.
For one thing, it is harder to manage the large number of prisoners, Hoskins said. Because of that, the safety of the prisoners, guards and staff comes into question.
"These people have a dangerous enough job as it is; we need to make sure they're safe," Hoskins said.
Between July 2008 and the record high in September, the state's prison population rose 2.3 percent, adding 687 inmates.
These numbers, while high for Missouri, do not pose a problem of forcing early release for some prisoners because of overcrowding, Lapine said.
As of Monday, about 500 vacancies were available for prisoners. If necessary, certain facilities, such as the women's facility in Chillicothe, can be opened for more prisoners.
One factor contributing to the high prison population is a 39 percent increase since July 2008 in incoming inmates who have been sentenced for a new or first offense, Lapine said.
The sentence length tends to be longer for this type of offender. Their average sentence is three years, while parole returnees, for example, average a one-year sentence. The number of parole violators has risen only 5 percent, said David Oldfield, Corrections Department director of research and evaluation.
Hoskins said an increased prison population is "a problem we have to take in the legislature," and he said Missouri lawmakers should further research other options, like private prisons.
Missouri has two private prisons, in Holden and Bethany. Hoskins said there may need to be more. Creating more private prisons is "a viable option," he said, but first he would like to make sure that the two Missouri has are being used efficiently.
Hoskins represents Missouri's 121st House District, which includes Holden.
The two private prisons house inmates moved as a result of overcrowding in Missouri and other states.
Another option that could decrease the number or people sentenced to prison would be alternative sentencing for minor drug offenses, said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
"Treatment through drug court is a more cost-effective method for some drug offenders, rather than prison," he said.
Oldfield said the prison population increase from last year is relatively low compared to the past 30 years.
Since July 2008, 1.9 prisoners have been added each day, Oldfield said, but over the past 30 years, the average daily increase was more than 2.5 prisoners.
"While our numbers are high — and granted it's not a huge spike — we have plenty of room to accommodate those intakes," Lapine said.