Mo. prison population at record high

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's prison population has reached an all-time high, and state officials are trying to figure out why.

After declining or holding steady for the previous few years, the inmate population has been rising during the past year and a half, according to figures provided Monday by the Department of Corrections.

At the end of September, the department had 30,720 inmates -- topping the previous high mark of 30,654 set in October 2005. That was down slightly to 30,708 Monday.

Department director George Lombardi said the increase is a result of new people being sentenced to prison, not because of probation revocations for prior offenders. But "we're still trying to analyze exactly where that is, how it is, what the cause is," he said

It's unclear whether more people are committing crimes in Missouri, whether more people simply are being convicted or whether courts are clearing out a backlog of cases, he said.

After peaking four years ago, Missouri's prison population dipped to 29,788 in September 2007 and remained around that mark until March 2008. Since then, it has risen by 3 percent.

Steady growth in prison populations was the norm for several decades in Missouri as lawmakers passed increasingly tough sentencing laws.

But that slowed after a 2003 Missouri law lowered the maximum prison sentence for some felonies, including drug possession, and gave judges greater discretion to order treatment programs or short-term shock sentences. The Department of Corrections also has placed a greater emphasis on programs that prepare soon-to-be-released offenders to re-enter society, resulting in a decline in the recidivism rate for parolees.

After opening nine prisons between 1994 and 2004, the state closed the 1,000-bed Central Missouri Correctional Center in June 2005 because of budget cuts. That prison remains closed, and Lombardi said there are no immediate plans to reopen it despite the recent growth in the inmate population.

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