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Is Missouri on track to build a new state prison?

Is Missouri on track to build a new state prison?

Jefferson City Correctional Center

Maximum security housing units at the Jefferson City Correctional Center sit below dormitory-style housing at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. (Kelley McCall, Associated Press)

JEFFERSON CITY • A leading state lawmaker warned Monday that Missouri may have to build a new state prison to accommodate a growing inmate population.

During a hearing on the Missouri Department of Corrections’ proposed budget, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick said new figures appear to show the state is on track to fill up its current fleet of 21 prison facilities.

Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican who is chairman of the House budget committee, said the state may be on a “collision course” with the need for a new lock-up.

According to DOC reports, the prison system was designed to house 31,540 inmates, but currently has more than 32,000 prisoners.

After hovering at about 30,000 inmates from 2006 to 2011, the number of prisoners has jumped over the past five years, including by more than 500 inmates last year, newly named DOC Director Anne Precythe told the budget panel.

Precythe told reporters later that she will spend the next year investigating ways to avoid building a new facility.

“That would definitely be the goal,” Precythe said.

For example, she said a rewrite of the criminal code, as well as other changes to the state’s approach to sentencing could keep low risk offenders in their own communities where they have a better chance to successfully rehabilitate their behavior.

Precythe, a former prison official in North Carolina, said Monday she is not ready to begin outlining the types of policy changes that are needed to begin lowering the number of offenders behind bars.

“We would definitely know by next year what the future looks like for the state of Missouri,” Precythe said.

The discussion of building a new prison comes amid a national trend that showed prison populations were beginning to decrease.

It also comes seven years after Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. floated a plan that would close one of the prisons by putting a spotlight on the state’s criminal sentencing guidelines.

By diverting 2,000 offenders from prison, the judge said the state could save about $33.7 million, which is the cost of running one state prison facility.

In 2012, the Legislature and former Gov. Jay Nixon approved a package of legislation aimed at chipping away at the prison population.

At the heart of the plan was more intensive community supervision. For example, probation officers could mete out immediate, 48-hour jail stays when an offender violates a rule of supervision, such as failing a drug test.

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