Efforts to cut prison population working, not saving money
By Adam McDonald
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Legislative efforts are making a dent in Missouri's prison population, but lawmakers and defense attorneys say more needs to be done to start saving money.
Almost 30,000 prisoners have been released through programs outlined in the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2012, according to a report from the Missouri Sentencing and Corrections Oversight Commission released Dec. 31. The act created incentives for offenders to comply with probation and diverts others from serving prison time for some technical violations.
But new sentencings have outstripped any savings, the report shows, which commission co-chair Sen. Bob Dixon says is spurring him to make a case for more funding to fully implement the legislation during budget negotiations. The Department of Corrections spent more than $662 million in fiscal year 2014 to house its 31,537 offenders -- about $21,000 per inmate.
Dixon, a Springfield Republican, said the state could incur additional costs if the number of prisoners increases enough to require a new prison, which corrections department figures show costs about $120 million on average.
"Already there's talk that we're going to need a new prison," Dixon said. "Whether that's the case will depend on how well the state implements these data driven reforms."
The number of inmates in Missouri nearly doubled from 1990-2005 -- from 14,074 to 30,446. Since then, the prison population has crept up at a slower pace, with about 32,000 inmates as of October.
Following in other states' footsteps, Missouri legislators aimed to avoid long-term expenses of additional incarcerations by reducing time nonviolent offenders spend in prison and cutting the inmate population overall. The money saved is to be used to reinvest in crime prevention, further reducing inmate populations and associated costs.
Efforts elsewhere appear to be working. For example, Texas has closed prisons since passing similar legislation in 2008.
But Missouri gained about 800 new inmates since 2012 and reforms haven't yet been able to surpass additional yearly sentencings, Dixon said.
"We're starting to get more good results," said Michael Barrett, general counsel for Missouri's Public Defender system, "but we need to do more of this to see some real significant gains."
Some of the programs that could be most effective are underfunded, Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Kevin Curran said, such as incentives for local counties to put probation violators in jail for short terms rather than revoke probation.
Dixon is hopeful that data from the report will help convince lawmakers to prioritize the project.
"That's another component of being smart on crime," Dixon said. "If we spend dollar there, we may be able to save $2 or $3 on something else."