Missouri's high imprisonment rate costs taxpayers

Monday, January 10, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One in 20 adult males is either behind bars or on parole in Missouri, and more Missourians are behind bars per capita than any state outside the South, according to new U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

An analysis of the Justice Department data by The Kansas City Star found Missouri to have the eighth-highest imprisonment rate in the country. Missouri prisons have about 15,000 nonviolent offenders locked up, costing taxpayers about $195 million a year.

Part of that bill comes from 300 deadbeat dads locked up at a cost of $3.9 million a year, or $13,000 per father.

The state's prison population has doubled since 1990, now totaling nearly 30,000. The penitentiary appears to be the preferred option for judges, and a costly one for taxpayers.

Since 1990, the costs for taxpayers to operate the prison system have more than doubled, to $575 million a year. That makes the Corrections Department's budget the second-fastest growing in state government.

Missouri is part of a national trend of tougher crime laws and stricter sentencing practices that have filled the nation's prison and jail populations with a record 2.2 million people.

The Department of Justice says the average cost of keeping criminals behind bars also has doubled, to $286 a year for each U.S. household.

But those who support punishing criminals with prison time say lower crime rates make it worth the cost.

"The public perception, and even into law enforcement and criminal justice, is that more time [in prison] is better than less time," Missouri Department of Corrections Director Gary Kempker said.

Critics contend that putting nonviolent offenders in prison only places an unnecessary burden on the system and taxpayers.

Kansas has far fewer nonviolent offenders in prison, and that state's incarcerated population looks far different from Missouri's. Seventy percent of Kansas inmates were convicted of violent crimes, while in Missouri only half were violent criminals.

While Kansas has only half as many residents as Missouri, the Sunflower State doesn't even have one-third of the prison population as its neighbor to the east. Kansas has just 20 deadbeat dads in prison compared to the 300 in Missouri, and has 90 drunken drivers locked up compared to more than 1,000 in Missouri.

Missouri officials are looking for prison alternatives for nonviolent criminals to curb the growing inmate populations, and some efforts at sentencing reform are under way.

Kempker serves on the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, which was required by a 2003 state law to publish sentencing recommendations for each category of crime and each type of defendant.

Former Sen. Harold Caskey's legislation required the commission to consider work-release programs, home incarceration and other alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenders.

Experts say states such as Missouri that have used voluntary sentencing guidelines have experienced the most rapid growth in prison populations. One possible reason is that states with mandatory sentencing guidelines seek to measure and predict the size of their prison populations.

But before mandatory guidelines can slow Missouri's growing prisons, the U.S. Supreme Court may change the nation's sentencing landscape.

The court ruled in June that only juries can increase sentences beyond a range of recommended guidelines.

Many state courts might turn to the Kansas Supreme Court as a model for sentencing guidelines to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling. Several years ago, Kansas corrected the guidelines and avoided the problem that's now a national issue, according to Daniel Wilhelm at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City.

But Missouri is among a handful of states that will not be affected by the Supreme Court ruling, Wilhelm said, because it never adopted mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Information from: The Kansas City Star

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