Prison cells
Patrick Tuohey

Missouri has a criminal justice problem. While the spike in homicides in Kansas City captures a lot of attention, as it should, it isn’t our only challenge. Rates of property crime and violent crime in Missouri are higher than the national average, and our state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Research suggests that Missouri can adopt policies that will reduce recidivism and prison costs.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, “The crime rate in Missouri (2015) is about 18% higher than the national average rate.” Missouri is also eighth in the nation in its incarceration rate, imprisoning 530 people per 100,000 population in 2015.

Then there is the cost. The Department of Corrections budget has grown from $580 million in 2006 to $710 million in 2016. In the last five years that growth has been driven chiefly by adult institutions. The only good news in Missouri’s prison data is that as of 2012, Missouri paid $22,350 each year per inmate, well below the national average of $32,142.

Missouri is not alone in struggling with crime and incarceration rates. High crime rates in the 1970s led many state legislatures to adopt harsh sentencing guidelines, including mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes. The states embarked on “throw the key away” crime control measures that increased the prison population at great public expense. But research has shown that there are diminishing returns to harsh sentences—they don’t always result in a reduction in crime. States have been reexamining their sentencing laws, and the results are promising. Early research from around the country suggests that some criminal justice reforms, such as those that address mandatory minimum sentencing, can reduce crime rates and save states money. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has published an excellent paper on the matter.

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections’ just-released Profile of Institutional and Supervised Offender Population (page 33), of the 30,754 members of the prison population, 41 percent are there for either nonviolent crime (7,377 inmates) or for drug-related crimes (5,403 inmates). These two offender groups, incidentally, are the fastest-growing populations since 2011. Imagine how much Missouri could save if courts had the flexibility to sentence these nonviolent offenders to treatment programs or probationary periods prior to locking them up—while still retaining the ability to treat violent or habitual offenders harshly.

Furthermore, imagine the benefit in human capital if nonviolent and drug offenders were sentenced to treatment or probation instead of being warehoused in state institutions with few opportunities for self-improvement.

The model reforms ALEC recommends are known at the Justice Safety Valve Act, and have been introduced in the Missouri general assembly as HB1037 and HB1046. If these reforms can do what they have done elsewhere—protect Missourians while avoiding unnecessary sentencing and costs—they are well worth consideration.

About the Author

Patrick Tuohey
Patrick Tuohey

Patrick Tuohey is the western Missouri field manager at the Show-Me Institute.