WHAT OTHERS SAY: More reforms needed to fix Missouri's criminal justice system

Monday, January 28, 2013 | 1:49 p.m. CST

County sheriffs are planning to be back in the Missouri Capitol this year waging a decade-old battle. They want the state to properly reimburse county jails for housing state prisoners.

The sheriffs are correct when arguing that they’re getting a raw deal. State law calls for a reimbursement of $37.50 per day for prisoners facing state charges but being housed in county jails, which is where most accused felons spend their time while awaiting trial. The legislature, though, never actually appropriates that much. This year sheriffs have to get by on less than $20 a day. It’s why many of them pad their bottom lines by agreeing to hold federal prisoners, who are reimbursed to the tune of $75 a day.

The problem, though, is much deeper than a mere financial transaction.

It’s that all the government players — the sheriffs, prosecutors, county commissioners and state lawmakers — are gaming the system because all of the incentives are in the wrong places.

Let’s say Joe Sixpack gets picked up on a breaking-and-entering charge. Odds are he was looking for cash to feed his meth habit. Or maybe he had a little marijuana in his car. The county sheriff or municipal police department is going to load him up on state charges. Why?

Because if Mr. Sixpack just faces city or county charges, there is no state reimbursement. Also, state sentences tend to be tougher, so the prosecutor can pad his tough-on-crime statistics. And the county commission, meanwhile, needs to justify its decision to ask voters for a tax hike for a new jail, so a little overcrowding wouldn’t hurt. Just don’t mention to the voters that half the jail is filled with federal prisoners from three counties away.

The end game is what has happened to Missouri.

The Department of Corrections' budget is bloated. Prisons are full. There’s no money for education, health care or roads. Oh, and that meth problem? Blame it on Sudafed.

Missouri is not unique in this regard. The Pew Center on the States has been funding a corrections reform agenda across the country based on empirical research showing that there is a better way to deal with crime.

Last year, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, the Missouri legislature took the first step toward implementing such reform, passing legislation that will begin to address the problem county sheriffs are still complaining about today.

House Bill 1525, sponsored by former Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, gives counties more control over probation and parole, ultimately creating an atmosphere in which some nonviolent offenders are steered away from the state prison system. While a step in the right direction, the bill fell far short of Pew-supported efforts in other states, including neighboring Kentucky, where lawmakers passed legislation intended to reduce the prison population by 3,000 prisoners over a decade.

Missouri lawmakers should take the second step this year and rewrite its criminal code, reducing penalties for some crimes, streamlining the code so it’s easier for prosecutors and police to use, and keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize: fixing the system so in the long run, prison populations drop.

“Instead of each level of government trying to take advantage of each other, they all should be focused on reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in jail,” suggests former Missouri Supreme Court Justice William Ray Price Jr., who was a major force behind the Pew reform effort last year.

The sheriffs aren’t wrong to ask for fair funding, but they would be better off pushing lawmakers to reform the system. Missouri needs to spend more time making sure drug-and-alcohol addicts get treated by funding drug treatment courts. It needs to streamline its system so that nonviolent offenders don’t soak up resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

The path to a system that makes financial sense for Missouri counties is one in which there are fewer people in the prison pipeline. Making progress on last year’s Pew-inspired baby steps should be a legislative priority.

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

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