WHAT OTHERS SAY: Corrections reform proposal a start, but it doesn't go far enough

Saturday, January 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

On Tuesday, 1,000 nonviolent felons walked out of Kentucky state prisons. The dramatic action is a result of legislation the state passed last year in response to an epidemic common in many states, including Missouri. Over the past couple of decades, as legislatures and prosecutors have gotten tough on crime, specifically drug offenses, prisons have filled up, and corrections budgets have become bloated, with little to show for it.

In Kentucky, for instance, the corrections budget has increased more than 200 percent over the past two decades.

Missouri's problem is worse: In 1982, the state's budget for housing about 6,000 prisoners was $122 million. Now a state that is struggling to pay for its public schools is spending more than $665 million a year warehousing more than 30,000 prisoners.

Something has to give, and state by state, the Pew Center on the States is helping state legislatures reverse trends by implementing a series of reforms meant to save money and put resources where they work best.

Last year, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill intended to reduce the prison population by about 3,000 people over 10 years, saving about $40 million a year.

Now it's Missouri's turn.

The 2012 legislative session began Wednesday. Missouri lawmakers soon will begin debating a series of bipartisan reforms endorsed by a working group of lawmakers and legal experts including prosecutors, public defenders, judges and county sheriffs that will seek to spend the state's resources more effectively.

The reforms are quite obvious and based on hard data: Put away really bad guys. Reduce recidivism by treating the root causes of crime, such as drug and alcohol abuse. Give local officials the tools to discourage bad behavior.

Unfortunately, Missouri's goals are less ambitious than many of the states that have benefited from the Pew Center's data-driven study. In part, that's because of the divided political climate that makes progress so difficult. As a result, the modest, if not underwhelming, package of reforms might save only $16 million a year by 2017, with a reduction of about 670 inmates.

This is not exactly what Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr. had in mind each of the last few years as he urged lawmakers to reset priorities. Education funding was drying up while hundreds of millions of dollars were being wasted on corrections policies that don't actually reduce crime.

"I would have liked to have seen more," Mr. Price told us about the working group's report. "But you have to get the ball rolling in a way that's possible."

With the support of Mr. Price, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and key Republican legislative leaders Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, passing a basic package of judicial and corrections reforms should be possible.

Among the best ideas in the working group's proposal are:

  • Rewriting the state's outdated criminal code so that tough penalties are focused on dangerous crimes and nonviolent minor offenders don't clog the system.
  • Giving local probation and parole officers more resources to reduce recidivism, including the ability to threaten immediate jail time.
  • Requiring the state to fund county jails at the statutory rate of $30 a day to reduce the incentive for counties to offload inmates into state prisons.

Much more could and should be done, but this proposal is a step in the right direction.

It's unfortunate that the best Missouri can hope for politically is significantly less than the reforms that passed nearly unanimously in Kentucky, a state with a significantly smaller corrections budget.

Every year that Missouri ignores corrections reform is another year in which money not invested on the front end in children is thrown away on the back end in an inefficient system that isn't doing enough to keep us safe.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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